The Sessions: John Hawkes and Helen Hunt Have Serious Sexytime

“You were really and truly inside me,” Helen Hunt’s sex surrogate Cheryl assures her client, 36-year-old Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist confined to an iron lung after contracting polio as a child, who doesn’t want to die a virgin. Similarly, The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin and based largely on O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” hopes to penetrate viewers deeply, hitting its uplift beats hard. His life previously the subject of the 1996 short documentary Breathing Lessons, O’Brien, who died in 1999 at age 49, is depicted as an inveterate charmer, delighting the women who act as his care-takers before scaring them off by saying he loves them. Frustrated, the devout writer seeks the solace of a long-haired, cig-puffing priest, played by William H. Macy, who blesses Mark’s transactions with Cheryl. The wearying religiosity serves as a hedge against the messy carnal stuff; in an unnecessary subplot, Cheryl is converting to Judaism, a scenario that makes possible these words from Rhea Perlman’s mikveh attendant: “This is the body that God crafted for you.” Hawkes and Hunt nobly tackle the physical demands their roles require, and there is one good line, from a male attendant of Mark’s who says that intercourse is “overrated but necessary”—a statement soon belied by a sight gag of the erotically adventurous Mark gasping for his ventilator after Cheryl sits on his face.