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Movie review: 'The Sessions'

Posted 2:31pm on Friday, Nov. 02, 2012

R (strong sexuality, graphic nudity, strong language); 95 min.

The shocker about The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, is not the full-frontal nudity, nor its provocative story of a sex surrogate who helps a 38-year-old in an iron lung lose his virginity. It's not even the priest's blessing allowing the out-of-wedlock sex acts.

Rather, it's the humanistic way in which The Sessions deals with what sex at its best can be -- emotional, spiritual, physical, pleasurable, soul-satisfying, life-affirming.

The film is about the late poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio at age 6 and spent the rest of his 49 years in an iron lung. His spine was locked in a tortured curve, his head barely able to move.

For all the frustrations in his life, the one that began to obsess O'Brien at a certain point was his desire to experience sex. This particular journey is what The Sessions concentrates on. Outside of marriage, which did not seem in the offing, the idea of sex for O'Brien (Hawkes) ran counter to his Catholic faith, thus the priest (William H. Macy).

The physical challenges were significant, but living in Berkeley, there were viable options -- specifically, therapy-based treatment to assist the disabled with sexual issues. O'Brien chronicled his surrogacy experience with such humor and intellect that empathy, not pity prevailed.

That sensibility buoys writer-director Ben Lewin's screenplay as well. There are a lot of honest laughs, most found in the ironies that come with O'Brien's situation, while very little melodrama slips in. It makes for a strange sort of feel-good, feel-bad movie.

Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

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