The 1996 Oscar-winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien is a compelling look at the acclaimed writer who, having contracted polio as a child, spent his life in a state of paralysis, largely confined to an iron lung until his death in 1999 at the age of 49. The Sessions, a major hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival (winning an audience award for Best Dramatic Film as well as a special jury prize for Best Ensemble), narrows down the man's life to one thought seemingly more apt for an American Pie entry: Mark O'Brien wants nothing more than to lose his virginity.
Writer-director Ben Lewin isn't going for a cheap thrill here: While researching and writing an article about sex among the disabled, Mark really did decide that he wanted to experience the act himself (while he couldn't move anything below his neck, he still had sensitivity in his body). The Sessions details that odyssey, with Mark (a terrific performance by Winter's Bone Oscar nominee John Hawkes) finding a sex surrogate in Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who explains to her client on their initial meeting that there's a difference between a prostitute and what she does (mainly, that a prostitute wants your return business, while a sex surrogate is only employed for a predetermined number of meetings). A wife and mother, Cheryl doesn't hide her job from her husband (Adam Arkin), as he understands it's all business. But once it becomes clear that Mark is falling for Cheryl - and perhaps she's also falling for him? - matters become complicated for all involved.
The Sessions is entertaining but also the sort of feature that can wait for a DVD rental. Sex scenes aside, it feels puny on the big screen, with its emphasis on gentle laughs, expected narrative developments and a former sitcom star (Hunt) in one of the leading roles (it's not surprising to learn that Lewin was planning to make a TV sitcom featuring disabled characters before stumbling across O'Brien's story).
Still, it's worth catching for Hawkes' excellent performance, and there are also notable turns by Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks as two of Mark's caregivers. And while I didn't quite believe William Macy as Mark's priest and friend, he's nevertheless amusing as his character is forced to listen to frank discussions involving sex surrogates, fornication outside of marriage, and other taboos guaranteed to rock the confessional booth.