Excuse the pun: When Peggy Siegal introduced The Sessions as the feel good movie of the year at a special screening Thursday night, she was not kidding. Based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a poet who spent much of his time in an iron lung, a result of childhood polio, The Sessions tells of his "first time" at age 38, thanks to the permission he gets from a Catholic priest (William H. Macy) and the expertise of a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt as you have never seen her).
Filmmaker Ben Lewin based his script on an essay O'Brien wrote about this experience. The movie features strong performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt who were on hand for a Q&A with Annette Insdorf, author, most recently of a fine study of the director Philip Kaufman. The audience included Lorraine Bracco, Melissa Leo, Judd Hirsch, Lois Smith, Tovah Feldshuh, Richard Kind, and Celia Weston. Famed pint-sized sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, an inspired invitee for this evening, sat front and center.
If you praise Helen Hunt's acting as brave, she laughs to say brave means naked. And yes, her naked body alongside Hawkes' from the waist up, four nipples spanning the frame, shows an aspect of the film's sexuality that makes this work so compelling. Unselfconscious, the sex of this unusual couple is free of the normal awkward embarrassment of the sex act. Despite his disability, Mark is a caring lover, and Cheryl is moved beyond her professional boundaries. Helen Hunt said she worked hard to emulate the real Cheryl, to find what makes her so compassionate: her utter lack of judgment; what, in fact, makes a surrogate different from a hooker. Suddenly after the questions were asked, with everyone poised for the dinner at the Osteria del Circo, Dr. Ruth leapt to her feet: You must use condoms, she exclaimed to the actors.
The real Cheryl, Cheryl Cohen Greene, the woman on whose work with O'Brien Hunt's role was based, said, yes of course they used condoms, but they took too long to maneuver in film time.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.