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MOVIE REVIEW: Performances in 'The Sessions' exceed sum of total film

Special Photo: Fox SearchlightHelen Hunt stars in "The Sessions."

Special Photo: Fox SearchlightHelen Hunt stars in "The Sessions."

The Sessions

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

Equal parts introspective and audience pleasing, "The Sessions" also covers multiple turf with its appeal to the carnal, the spiritual and the humanitarian. Like this week's "Flight," it is a movie containing performances that exceeds the total sum of its film, but unlike that movie, it will leave you feeling far better about your fellow man.

Generally these movies make cloyingly meaty stabs at the heart strings and most of the time they hit their mark. Usually they debut on cable outlets like "Oxygen" and "Lifetime" but because it contains frank sexuality and stars two Oscar-nominated performers, "The Sessions" will find appeal far beyond the usual target over-35 female demographic.

The film is loosely based on the story of California writer Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a man who became paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio as a child. Extraordinarily upbeat despite spending 20 hours a day in an iron lung, O'Brien long since come to terms with his condition and is basically content, save for one facet of his life.

A devout Catholic who was deathly afraid of straying even a little bit from the church's teachings, O'Brien feels he needs specific permission before he can proceed with his plans. During a conversation that can't quite be labeled a confession, O'Brien asks his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) if hiring a sexual surrogate would qualify as a sin. As priests go, Brendan is pretty liberal and after he takes into account O'Brien's unconditional devotion to his faith, gives him a pass and his blessing.

With his mind clear and libido at the ready, O'Brien hires sexual surrogate Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt) for the specific reason of losing his virginity. Matter-of-fact yet disarming, Greene immediately makes a few things clear before going to work. She is not a prostitute and she will limit her appointments with O'Brien to six times. She's not to be viewed as a girlfriend or a paid companion but as a specialist providing an adult version of physical therapy.

With the touchy nature of the plot, it would have been quite easy for the movie to become sanctimonious, manipulative, tawdry or worse -- laughable -- yet Polish-Australian writer/director Ben Lewin (himself a polio survivor) never strays off course. The drama is engaging but never heavy-handed and the frequent comic relief feels natural and unforced. Lewin's dialogue is devoid of the typical patronizing tone that usually litters "feel-good" stories and -- with just a 96 minute running time -- the movie doesn't overstay its welcome.

With a career that has consisted of playing mostly evil men ("Winter's Bone," "Martha Marcy, May, Marlene"), Hawkes shows his considerable range as not only a lead protagonist, but as man who can't move. Lying down and being still is not conducive to wide expression or great acting and it is to Hawkes' credit that he is able to be immediately believable and embraced by the audience. An Oscar nomination for him is essentially a forgone conclusion.

Taking a role such as this was a huge gamble for Hunt but it paid off. Not having done much of note since her Oscar-winning turn in "As Good As it Gets" 15 years ago, Hunt has completely fallen off the leading lady radar and "The Sessions" is exactly the boost her sagging career needs at the moment. They aren't many 49-year-old actresses (or actors for that matter) that would do full frontal nudity under any circumstances yet Hunt -- fit or fitter than most women half her age -- handles it without a second thought. Because her character is so professional in her approach, Hunt treats her nudity in much the manner -- it is a requirement of the job and the character could not be believable without it.

If you see "The Sessions" and like it, you might want to search out "Breathing Lessons," the 1997 Oscar-winning documentary about O'Brien from director Jessica Yu. It concentrates more on O'Brien's career and battle with polio and is equally inspirational. (Fox Searchlight)