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Film Review: ‘The Sessions’ offers warmth, humor in difficult subject matter

Living life to its fullest takes on a gentle meaning in “The Sessions,” that even the most sensitive of eyes will appreciate the lighthearted accessibility of its subject matter. When I think of all the delicate topics I’ve encountered on the big screen, the ones that stand out the most in my mind are disability and sex.

William H. Macy plays Father Brendan in “The Sessions.” Photo by Sarah M. Golonka

For the former, making a connection with someone whose life has been affected by his or her disability can be emotionally staggering, especially when you see how they resolve to go about life in spite of the difficulties.

For the latter, understanding what sex truly is, and not just in the physical sense, can oftentimes be subject to misrepresentation, which eventually results in a grave misunderstanding.

It can be difficult to witness these themes in film, and those with certain perspectives can be put off if neither one is handled in a respectable manner.

As “The Sessions” proves, however, where there is a will there is a way.

With lighthearted sincerity being its chosen lens, this 2012 Sundance Film Festival winner incorporates an enjoyable dimension to disability and sex without compromising its maturity.

Paralyzed from the neck down due to polio complications, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) decides he wants to lose his virginity.

With the aid of his assistant, played by Moon Bloodgood and his Catholic priest (William H. Macy), he meets a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him achieve his goal.

As Mark’s journey to manhood gets closer and closer to becoming a reality, his relationship with Cheryl deepens.

As this is based on a true story, it doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize serious issues are about to be shared with the audience. But the importance of Mark’s story would’ve gotten nowhere without a funny side.

Given the once real man’s occupation as a poet, I enjoyed how Hawkes elucidates his character’s thought processes and outlooks on life through his poems, which are further elaborated by the actor’s voiceover narration.

Each sentence that he forms in his psyche bears the markings of a witty, sensible human being.

And if that were not enough, the one-on-one conversations between Hawkes and Macy’s characters inside the church never seek to offend anybody’s religious views on sexuality, while eliciting a sufficient amount of laughs.

Having frank conversations about sex and disabilities is one thing, but infusing them with well-placed humor is another. Yet somehow, “The Sessions” makes such a challenging endeavor appear to be effortless.

Of course, the use of humor to bolster the gravity of Mark’s situation with a good dose of confidence can only exist through Hawkes’ inspirational performance. He does an excellent job in capturing Mark’s hardships in a realistic light; I was frequently convinced he was a true polio victim trapped in an iron lung.

If I had to name somebody who embodied a disabled person with the same aptitude as Hawkes’ it would be Jack Lemmon as Morrie Schwartz in “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

No patient, however, can accomplish a goal without guidance from a professional.

In this case, Helen Hunt’s portrayal of Cheryl fulfills that capacity with compassionate audacity. It’s been a long time since I last saw her on screen and her acting chops have never been better in this latest role.

I liked how she brought genuine empathy and vulnerability to Cheryl, who conducts her work while clad in her birthday suit.

The only other actresses I can think of that are capable of going naked without sacrificing their dignity are Penelope Cruz (“Broken Embraces”) and Anne Hathaway (“Love and Other Drugs.”)

William H. Macy also deserves a round of applause for his supporting role as Father Brendan.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the depth of his character’s open-mindedness while conversing with Mark — something that tends to be absent in most of the religious figures I’ve seen in film.

Understanding what it means to be disabled and to experience sex has never been more accessible and sincere than in “The Sessions.”

Even if your eyes are sensitive to such topics, they will find comfort in this heartwarming accomplishment.