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‘Sessions’ sensitive, affirming, grown-up

LOS ANGELES – The shocker about “The Sessions,” starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, is not the nudity, or 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.

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.

In a country that embraces cinematic violence with such ease but blushingly prefers to keep sex in the shadows or under the sheets, the grown-up approach of “The Sessions” is rare.

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. Yet he wrote, lived, laughed and loved in the face of it all.

For all the frustrations in his life, the one that began to obsess O’Brien 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 progressive 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.

Perhaps the lack of mush comes from the director’s own experiences with polio as a child, the iron lung he doesn’t remember, the crutches he uses to this day.

A crush on one of his caregivers, a pretty student named Amanda (Annika Marks), is what impels O’Brien to seriously consider the sex question. The stakes rise, and the tone of the film shifts, when O’Brien settles his conscience and locates a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Hunt). With that, the march toward his first sex gets under way.

The challenge for Hunt is to channel Cheryl’s pragmatism about what is going to happen. Her performance is a brave one. Hunt truly does turn herself and her body into an instrument for healing. It is the best work the actress has done since her Oscar turn in 1997’s “As Good as It Gets.”

Ultimately, “The Sessions” is about a decent, disarming, disabled man on a quest to lose his virginity; nothing more profound is afoot. For me it was story enough.