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TIFF '12: Sex, Kindness, And Polio In 'The Sessions'

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt star in <em>The Sessions</em>.
Red Camera Pulls
Toronto International Film Festival
John Hawkes and Helen Hunt star in The Sessions.

[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of next week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]

I'll say this: The Sessions is probably the most lighthearted movie about sex and polio you'll see this year.

Based on the true story of writer Mark O'Brien, who lived many years in an iron lung after having polio as a child, The Sessions begins by explaining a life that relies more conspicuously than most on help from others. O'Brien, beautifully played by John Hawkes, relies on a series of assistants for all of his daily needs; as he explains, he's not paralyzed exactly, but he's immobilized by muscles that don't work well and so lives on his back on a gurney. After he writes an article about sex and the disabled (he types with a pencil in his mouth), he realizes that while he's always assumed he would always remain a virgin, that might not be the case.

But finding a partner isn't easy, and after seeking advice from his priest and friend (William H. Macy), he finds a sex surrogate — a person who essentially performs a kind of sex therapy that includes the actual having of sex. His surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), explains that she's very different from a prostitute (a question the priest asked) for a very simple reason: a prostitute wants repeat business, while she will only see him as a client six times. The limitation makes some sense if the intention is to avoid attachments that blur the therapist/client relationship in this obviously fraught setting, but it also adds a poignant sense of limitation to their meetings that mirrors the way he feels about his life in general.

Candidly, it might seem sad that a man would find experience with physical intimacy in this way, but in fact, what takes a while to get used to is the film's lightheartedness. The early discussions between Hawkes and Macy are played largely for laughs — Macy can't not get laughs when his big, open face is called upon to respond to something as surprising to a priest as a request for official religious approval to pay someone to have sex with you outside of marriage. There are times when it seems like the attitude toward O'Brien might be a little too glib, the emphasis too much on how funny the idea of a sex surrogate sounds to some of the people with whom he discusses it.

The critical turn is the appearance of Hunt's character. Helen Hunt is among the many actors whose Oscar wins — hers was for As Good As It Gets — don't open the door to a world of opportunity the way you might hope. But she's absolutely marvelous in this film, and as Hunt plays her, Cheryl is warm and professional, always a therapist even as she and Mark bond in ways that confound them a little. There are some great moments early in their relationship in which she explains what the ground rules are, and Hunt deserves a lot of credit for making those explanations sound friendly and caring but dead serious and boundary-setting.

Once Cheryl appears, the film never again threatens to cross over into finding Mark's sexuality itself funny — the sex is sometimes funny, as sex sometimes is, and the conversation about it is often very funny. But Cheryl's frankness and kindness give a little weight to the story that helps balance the broad comedy of Mark's visits to church to explain how it's going.

The performances are uniformly terrific — Hawkes and Hunt are marvelous, Macy is a lot of fun, and there's a great supporting turn from Moon Bloodgood, who plays Mark's assistant, Vera.

The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, is not as surprising as some of the other material playing at the festival when it comes to tone. It's being distributed by Fox Searchlight, and I described it to someone last night as very "Fox Searchlight-y." That only means anything to you if you follow the kinds of smaller box-office, bigger buzz films that win a lot of American awards these days, but all it means is that there's a mix of warmth and humor and sadness that's very crowd-pleasing for a certain kind of crowd. (It won an audience award at Sundance, if that helps explain what I mean.) But that doesn't take anything away from what a fine piece of work it is, or how certain I am that Hawkes, at the very least, will be in the Oscar mix.

The Sessions opens in limited release in the United States on October 26.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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