The newest disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture is The Sessions, and it’s quirky and grounded enough to sneak past your more cynical defenses — the kind that would lead you, say, to label it a disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture. Two things make you sit up, the first being that its 38-year-old Berkeley protagonist, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), cannot: Paralyzed below the neck from childhood polio and almost never raised to a sitting position, he is largely seen at a 90-degree angle — which creates, interestingly, a kind of poetic distance. The pathos isn’t in-your-face. The second novel element is, in fact, the focus. Where other disability films ignore or dance around the question of how their subjects, as the Brits so delicately say, “manage it,” The Sessions dances right in. It’s a sexual coming-of-age movie. The original title was The Surrogate for its chief female character, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), hired by Mark to teach him how to give and receive pleasure, which means they get nekkid together. Relax, it’s legal — even wholesome.
One reason the “ick factor” is almost nonexistent is that Mark is both endearing and witty. A devout — rather traumatized — Catholic, he explains his belief in God like so: “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for this.” Hawkes bears little resemblance to his meth-fueled uncle in Winter’s Bone or Manson-like cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. His features are relaxed and his voice is minus chest tones. It all seems to come from his nose — he sounds like Liberace. A virgin with some notoriety as a poet and essayist, Mark, who has a habit of pining in vain for his dishier female attendants, asks for his priest’s blessing to do it with it a surrogate, explaining that he’s coming close to his “use-by date.” The long-haired Father Brendan is played by William H. Macy, whom I didn’t buy for a second. But there wasn’t a second I didn’t love him and his hangdog deadpan as he tries to remain impassive while Mark gives him more detail than he wants to hear. Gazing at Jesus above the altar, the priest says, “I feel like he’ll give you a free pass on this one.” Amen.
Writer-director Ben Lewin, a 66-year-old best known for TV dramas and comedies in Australia, the U.K., and Hollywood (I won’t hold Touched by an Angel against him), takes a simple, almost matter-of-fact approach that’s buoyed by Marco Beltrami’s sprightly score. It fits the performances of Hawkes and Hunt, who sheds her clothes so easily that you forget to be embarrassed. She manages to make her patter (“We’ll start with some body-awareness exercises”) sound neither robotic nor coy but perfectly appropriate: Her body says “NC-17” but her words are “PG-13.” (The MPAA split the difference and gave the picture an R.) It’s nice to see Hunt again. She was overused for a couple of years, played some bum roles, and dropped out for a spell. Seeing her here reminds you how plain-in-a-good-way she can be, the emotions rising up as if by their own power and breaking through her studiously levelheaded surface. Mark, of course, falls (so to speak) for Cheryl, and Cheryl, in a way, for Mark. What they do about it as their sessions (they’re limited to six) draw to a close is sudden and moving. I watched Hunt trying to hold back the tears and cried before she did.
The briskness of The Sessions works against it: It lacks the fullness of the best films of its ilk, chief among them Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot. But Lewin lets his eye wander pleasingly. As one of Mark’s attendants, Moon Bloodgood has a lovely poker face that once or twice gives her hand away, and her scenes with Ming Lo as a well-dressed motel desk clerk (she sits with him while Mark and Cheryl have their sessions behind closed doors) are sweet little studies in flirtation and repression. Mark O’Brien was a real guy, and I think he’d be pleased that his story has been told as a good comedy with tears instead of a by-the-numbers weeper with laughs.