Paralyzed and confined to an iron lung since childhood, poet-journalist Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) has overcome adversity time and time again. But now, at age 38, he faces his toughest challenge yet: losing his virginity. With the help of a beautiful therapist (Hunt), a sympathetic priest (Macy), and his own unbridled sense of optimism and humor, Mark embarks on an extraordinary personal journey to discover the wondrous pleasures that make life worth living.
It almost seems like a miracle when a director manages to make a dynamic movie about a character with limited mobility, but The Sessions joins the ranks of successful efforts like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In adapting the remembrances of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes, Winter's Bone), who spent most of his life in an iron lung, Australian filmmaker and fellow polio survivor Ben Lewin recounts his alternately sad and funny attempts to lose his virginity (O'Brien previously appeared as himself in Jessica Yu's documentary Breathing Lessons). By 1988, the 36-year-old Berkeley writer had forged friendships with women, but romantic relationships eluded him. In discussing the matter with his therapist, she suggests Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a wife, mother, and sexual surrogate. It's a viable solution, but as a devout Catholic, Mark is uncomfortable with the idea of extramarital relations, so he shares his concerns with an open-minded priest (William H. Macy). With an absence of pity and an abundance of wit, Lewin documents Mark's journey though this physical, emotional, and spiritual minefield, which takes a toll on Cheryl as well, since her husband (Adam Arkin) resents the closeness she develops with her client (though plausible, this subplot feels forced). If Hunt received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance, which involves a fair amount of nudity, the Academy failed to recognize Hawkes, a regrettable omission as this fine actor succeeds in creating a fully rounded human being whose desire for affection feels as universal as it does specific. --Kathleen C. Fennessy