'The Sessions' tells tale of the virgin's diary ★★★ 1/2

In 1990 the writer Mark O'Brien contributed an article for the literary magazine The Sun called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." A survivor of childhood polio, the substantially disabled O'Brien spent much of his sleeping and waking hours confined to an iron lung. Interviewing other disabled people for an earlier assignment, he realized his own sexual life — so dormant for so long — needn't stay that way forever. "Being disabled myself, but also being a virgin, I envied these people ferociously," he wrote in the 1990 piece.

The lovely new film "The Sessions" is straightforward in its script construction and has a foursquare visual approach to match. It's somewhat cautious in emotional terms. Judging from O'Brien's 1990 first-person article, he coped with a fuller variety of distractions and demons than we're shown in the movie.

But what's there, to quote Spencer Tracy, is choice. John Hawkes is wonderful as O'Brien, as is Helen Hunt as the surrogate whose sessions with O'Brien form the crux of the film. The results are extremely moving and, in general, low on egregiously yanked heartstrings or the usual biopic filler. Writer-director Ben Lewin sticks close to the anticipation and to the fraught and tender details of O'Brien's sessions with Hunt's real-life character, Cheryl Cohen-Greene. And when the ending arrives it's almost impossible not to feel a great deal.

It's gratifying to see Hawkes playing this dear combination of pained stoicism and sunny, wisecracking optimism. In films such as "Winter's Bone" (for which he was Oscar-nominated as the steely Ozark meth addict Teardrop) and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (he played the laconic cult leader), Hawkes' angularity and head-on, scarifying gaze marked him as a character actor of real precision and genuine, unsettling distinction. In "The Sessions," Hawkes impresses with the physical requirements of the role, the body contortions, the use of the mouth-stick, the breathing-challenged vocal quality. But this is a graceful performance, not a checklist or a stunt, and although Hawkes (typically photographed horizontally, on a gurney, or diagonally) always takes center stage, "The Sessions" is largely about how this desperately romantic poet and writer related to the women around him.

Hunt is an interesting case on screen. She can be formidable and mercurial, warm and cool in the same instant, though in some roles the edginess gets the best of her, as if she needed to be somewhere else, and soon. In "The Sessions" that bluntness works. Frequently nude (typical of an MPAA-sanctioned R rating, the nudity's all on the female side), she runs the sessions as forthright explorations of uncharted territory. After one successful session there's a sun-dappled shot of O'Brien looking up at the trees above him, and the look on his face is that of heartbreaking joy and a kind of plaintive nostalgia for what's already in the past.

O'Brien reveals his insecurities regarding his virginity-loss project to a Catholic priest (William H. Macy, rock-solid and often very funny in his theological assessment of O'Brien's desires). In other parts of "The Sessions," Hawkes confides in voice-over; in still others, he pours out little bits of his easily seduced heart to his poker-faced assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood) or, earlier, a caregiver who captures his affections (Annika Marks).

O'Brien was the subject of an Oscar-winning short "Breathing Lessons," and it seems likely that "The Sessions" will receive a few nominations of its own. It deserves them.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Sessions' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue)
Running time: 1:35
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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