Something that does, rather significantly, set this movie apart from the rest of its herd is that it is full of sex. And I mean full. The engine of the movie's uplift is this: Mark, confined to an iron lung for all but a few hours a day, has never known the romantic touch of a woman. Unlike a paraplegic, Mark has sensation on all parts of his body, there's just nothing he can do about it. He thus has messy encounters with his attendants when they're bathing him and, knowing his "use-by date" might be up soon, has begun to feel a creeping lack and frustration that, though he is a devout Catholic, even frequent visits with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), can't fill or satisfy. After falling in love with a pretty young attendant and telling her so, causing her to tearily leave her post, Mark gets the blessing from Father Brendan to pursue appointments, or sessions, with what's known as a sex surrogate. Not a hooker, no sir, but a sex therapist who gets fully hands-on with the job. Mark first learns about sex surrogacy through a woman named Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama) whom he interviews for an article about sex and the disabled. Carmen is not some beatific character whose nobility in the face of struggle we are supposed to cheer on and feel emboldened by. She's just a regular lady who happens to be in a wheelchair, and who's open about sex and wants to help Mark. The film has a refreshingly frank approach to matters generally whispered about away from polite company, a bluntness that stands in pleasant, airy contrast (and complement) to the bright and sunny camerawork and all the muted, calm tones of the production design. This movie is very much about sex, but here is nothing dirty about it.
The sex surrogate that Carmen recommends is Cheryl, a smart and poised woman played with, well, smarts and poise by Helen Hunt. Hunt is an actress who can sometimes seem removed, distant behind a wall of skepticism or neurosis, but here is brimming with up-close compassion and a kind of intellectual earthiness that makes her both motherly and sexy. I know that sounds gross, but what I really mean is that she's caring and comforting while also being a fluidly, openly sexual person. We see a lot of Helen Hunt naked, folks, but given the easygoing, sensitive tones of the film, her nudity is never shocking or leering. Instead, that she's so comfortable with her body relaxes the rest of us, eases us through all the squishy language — ejaculate! intercourse! — and technical visuals we're exposed to throughout. In the beginning we're nervous, as is Mark, but eventually we come to love our bodies, and their bodies, and everyone's bodies. Bodies are great, and special, and should be appreciated, the film gently teaches us.
The bulk of the movie unfolds over the course of these sessions, both sex sessions with Cheryl and counseling/debriefings with an increasingly interested (but never pruriently so) Father Brendan, and we slowly watch people change. Mark, a Boston transplant with a wry wit, lets his nervousness subside and thus enables his innate charm to shine through. While Cheryl, a professional who limits her number of sessions with each client to six lest attachment form, begins to, of course, form an attachment. This isn't that movie, though. Cheryl has a family and they matter to her, and Mark understands that. The connection they form is really more about two people recognizing the goodness in one another and being moved by it. Goodness, really, is all around them. It's in Mark's attendants, especially the new girl Vera, a taciturn type who nonetheless exhibits a knowing protectiveness of her charge. Vera is played by the actress Moon Bloodgood, who's mostly done action-adventure stuff prior to this, and it's a sign of this film's generosity and grace that she fits right in with the quiet patter. She does strong, understated stuff with a small role and I'd like to see more and bigger from her in this vein. Macy is another totem of goodness here, all shaggy hair and crinkle-faced compassion. It's a testament to Macy's talents that he can employ the same qualities in two different roles and come up with completely opposite results; on Showtime's Shameless his hound dog droopiness communicates years of selfish destructiveness. In The Sessions it's simply the sign of a man comfortable in his years, wizened in the vernacular of the everyday.