[Screen It]


(2012) (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt) (R)

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Drama: A nearly 40-year-old disabled man hires a married sex surrogate so that he can lose his virginity.
It's 1988 and Mark O'Brien (JOHN HAWKES) is a 38-year-old man who, due to contracting polio at a young age, only has control of his head, although he can feel all parts of his body, including his genitals. That and his unintentional orgasms when bathed and otherwise intimately cared for have left him both embarrassed and frustrated, something he discusses with his priest, Father Brendan (WILLIAM H. MACY).

After his last female attendant, Amanda (ANNIA MARKS), leaves when he expresses his love for her, Mark is more careful about falling for her replacement, Vera (MOON BLOODGOOD). She works with his longtime male attendant, Rod (W. EARL BROWN), in taking care of him, including much of his time spent in an iron lung to allow him a few hours out of that each day where he can breathe on his own. Even so, he has frank sexual discussions with Vera, all of which leads to him taking part in a survey of sexual activity among the disabled.

It's during that when he learns about sexual surrogates and decides that it's time he finally lose his virginity. After getting approval from Father Brendan to go for it, he hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (HELEN HUNT) for six sex sessions. Married to Josh (ADAM ARKIN) and mother to their teenage son, Cheryl is kind to Mark and his predicament, but she's also determined to fulfill his request.

Facing both fear and excitement, Mark follows Cheryl's lead, although they must contend with various developments and minor setbacks regarding his quest to lose his virginity.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It's a subject matter that few people want to discuss but one that deserves discussion due to it afflicting a lot more people than many think. And I'm talking about sexuality among the disabled, particularly regarding those with full mental acuity and complete touch response, but no control over their bodies. While the perception is changing among the able-bodied, many people still view the disabled as asexual beings simply because they can't imagine being trapped in such a situation or the unique ways of trying to deal with such a condition and related pent-up desires.

One such person who did -- because he was stuck smack dab in the middle of such an existence -- was Mark O'Brien, a Californian journalist and poet who was first featured in the Oscar winning short subject documentary, "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien." That film was released three years before his death at the age of 49 from post-polio syndrome, a condition that left him unable to control anything but his head.

He returns in fictional form, played by John Hawkes, in "The Sessions," an uplifting if unevenly handled drama that focuses on the man along with his desire and then goal to lose his virginity at the age of 38 via a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt, often in all of her full naked glory). While Hawkes will likely earn many award nominations for his work -- and rightly so considering what he had to do to nail the role - it's uncertain if the rest of the film will follow suit, although it should nonetheless become a decent art-house success.

While the film may sound as if it has the potential of being depressing, scandalous and/or simply filled with the potential of mishandling the material, it isn't as lurid or sad as it could have been. And that's mainly due to Hawkes portraying O'Brien as a man with a lot of issues but also a sense of humor, and sometimes a wicked one at that. That mindset is presented when he's dealing with his personal caregivers (Annia Marks and then Moon Bloodgood as her replacement) as well as his priest (William H. Macy) who's initially taken aback a bit by Mark discussing his frustration and goal in frank ways not typically heard in church.

The latter is designed as comic relief of sorts, but much of the overall relationship between the two men as well as that part of the film's connection with the Hawkes-Hunt pairing feels off to one degree or another. While it does provide for some amusing moments, it feels somewhat shoehorned into the rest of the proceedings, and writer/director Ben Lewin near completely misses the opportunity to compare and contrast the mindset, behavior and soulfulness of men who do not have sex, one by circumstance, the other by choice (as a priest).

Another element that doesn't work and isn't fully explored is the relationship between the sex surrogate and her husband (played by Adam Arkin). While the difference between a surrogate and a prostitute is briefly brought up, the wife-husband dynamic -- particularly considering the set-up of them dealing with her line of work -- gets little attention.

When it finally perks up -- due to the husband inexplicably suddenly getting jealous, opening her mail and then being upset about a tame love letter from her client -- it feels like an obligatory late in the game conflict thrown in just to create more drama.

Had we seen a growing sense of uncomfortableness on his part and/or that of their teenage son behaving inappropriately toward his own sexuality (as a result of learning of his mom's profession -- especially from the taped narratives she records and stores in their home), it might have been easier to buy into. As it stands, however, it feels even more shoehorned into the proceedings.

Those objections aside, the material between the two main characters comes off as credible, sometimes funny and a bit touching, even if many an audience member might be shocked by just how much sexually frank talk and explicit behavior is put up on the screen, not to mention Hunt going the Full Monty mode and then some.

While it goes hand in hand with the subject matter -- so to speak -- some viewers might think they're suddenly watching late night Cinemax, what with scenes such as Hunt squatting over Hawke's face with nary a stitch of clothing covering any part of her. And considering the film is all about sexuality among the disabled, it's somewhat surprising that there's no full nudity of the male protagonist.

In the end, the film greatly benefits from Hawkes' tremendous performance (where he has to act near solely with just his face while holding his body in a contorted pose) and covering a subject matter not often addressed in the movies. If only the rest of the film had stepped up and matched his work, "The Sessions" would have likely rated higher than a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 26, 2012 / Posted October 26, 2012

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