The Sessions | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Sessions

John Hawkes shines in this real-life story about a disabled man seeking to fulfill his sexuality

Bedfellows Helen Hunt and John Hawkes
Bedfellows Helen Hunt and John Hawkes

You've likely seen plenty of films about guys waging a war against their virginity, but none quite like The Sessions. Ben Lewin's film — it's not quite a comedy, so call it a lighthearted account of a dramatic issue — depicts the real-life story of how Mark O'Brien, a 38-year-old disabled writer, hires a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). This is a universally fumbling challenge, but even more so for O'Brien, who can move only his head and spends most of his time in an iron lung.

John Hawkes portrays O'Brien, and while Academy voters will surely note the actor's dedication to the role's limited physicality, he deserves higher marks for bringing O'Brien's engaging and self-deprecating personality to life. 

The sex scenes are frank and awkward, but also sweet. Lewin, working from O'Brien's article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," doesn't sentimentalize the encounters, but they are no less affecting. (Lewin slyly suggests that the sex lives of the able-bodied people in O'Brien's orbit are also not immune to problems.)

William Macy rounds out the film's threesome (sorry), playing the slightly shaggy Catholic priest from whom O'Brien seeks advice. The padre's response mirrors ours; he is the third-party observer who initially greets O'Brien's quest with weirded-out bemusement. But ultimately, it is O'Brien's patient educating of him — and us —that lets the subject's humanity triumph over his adversity.