John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are two beating hearts in Ben Lewin’s cheeky light comedy about a writer largely confined to an iron lung losing his virginity at the age of thirty-eight. Mark O’Brien wrote an article about his experiences in 1990, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which offered the veteran writer-director a chance to explore the subject of polio without relying on his own experiences as someone whose own life has been formed by the aftereffects of the disease, he recently told me. In the main, recent American films have a genuine aversion to frank, sexually positive scenarios, and “The Sessions,” set in Berkeley, California in 1988, is straightforwardly, sincerely fucky in its pilgrim’s progress of sexual healing. Sex is presented not as neurosis, but as mystery, gift, completion, something beyond necessary, something essential and good. (With more than a little ribald humor to it all.) “I guess there were quite a few different titles mooted,” Lewin said. “We have a daughter who’s just turned thirteen, and we let her see the film, and the title she suggested was ‘Full Penetration.’ Out of the mouth of babes! In Latin America, it’s going to be called ‘Seis Sesiones De Sexo’! But I didn’t want to suggest it’s porno. It’s a long way from porno.” The acting is physicalized in the best way, as the characters move from simply appointed location to simply appointed location. As the surrogate’s thoughtful husband, Adam Arkin is set brow and hunched shoulders: rock-firm but readily dislodged. As Father Mike, a priest-confessor figure, William H. Macy makes comic floppy-haired hay as he reacts to O’Brien’s increasingly gamy but always game talk about the particulars of his sessions and his all-too-plausible instant crush on the sustained touch of the first woman he’s known. But it’s Hawkes and Hunt’s show, with Hunt’s Cheryl Greene openly naked, literally and figuratively as well. Hawkes’ performance is filled with angelic-faced deviltry, and impish-faced flirt, even as the body he mimics is twisted and wrought. There’s wicked tenderness to his turn that belies the malefic wickedness of his roles in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Winter’s Bone.” Hunt is splendid, but Hawkes is simply a fantastic, charismatic, virtuosic actor and his generous delivery of O’Brien’s witticisms never fails to surprise. Sex as storytelling: and with unexpected punchlines and punch. (O’Brien, who died in 1999, was also the subject of Jessica Yu’s 1996 documentary, “Breathing Lessons.”) With Moon Bloodgood. 95m. (Ray Pride)
“The Sessions” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.