Helen Hunt as Cheryl Cohen and John Hawkes as Mark...

Helen Hunt as Cheryl Cohen and John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien in "The Sessions." Credit: MCT

It's tough to say which is the biggest obstacle facing Mark O'Brien, the hero of "The Sessions," in his quest for a healthy sex life. The fact that he's a polio survivor in an iron lung is definitely a problem. Then again, his Catholic guilt may be even more crippling.

"The Sessions," about one man's triumph over all kinds of disadvantages, is based on O'Brien's 1990 article for The Sun magazine, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." It's a funny, tender film, anchored by a winning John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") as the cheeky-humored O'Brien and a very brave Helen Hunt as Cheryl, the sex worker who takes up his case. It's also -- as folks in O'Brien's adopted hometown of Berkeley, Calif., might say -- totally sex-positive.

The story begins when O'Brien, a poet and journalist, is assigned to write a story on sex among the disabled -- apparently a new concept to him. When he decides to become active himself, he first gets permission from his priest (a fictional character played by William H. Macy), then arranges a meeting with Cheryl, a sex therapist with a no-nonsense attitude but the patience of a saint.

What follows is O'Brien's slow and sometimes painful introduction to one of the most basic of human activities. Cheryl has to explain not just physical mechanics but protocol: "If you touch one you have to touch the other," she says of her breasts. "It's sort of a rule."

Written and directed by Ben Lewin, "The Sessions" may be guilty of dramatic license -- Cheryl's feelings toward O'Brien blossom rather suddenly -- but that's its only sin. The movie's frank, open-minded view of sexuality may leave you feeling, in O'Brien's words, "cleansed and victorious."

PLOT A polio-stricken man in an iron lung decides to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate. Based on a true story.

RATING R (nudity, sexual situations, language)

CAST John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy


BOTTOM LINE A funny, tender and mostly unsentimentalized movie about physical and emotional triumph. Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") is likely on his way to a second Oscar nomination.

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