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Originally published Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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'The Sessions': Actors breathe life — and love — into sex comedy/drama

A movie review of "The Sessions," a comedy/drama written and directed with quiet charm and wisdom by Ben Lewin. It's about a 38-year-old single man (John Hawkes) who is confined to an iron lung for most of his hours — and determined to lose his virginity. Helen Hunt stars as his sex surrogate and William H. Macy as his priest.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Sessions,' with John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman. Written and directed by Ben Lewin. 95 minutes. Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue. Several theaters.

For an interview with Marks, an up-and-coming actress from Bellevue, go to www.seattletimes.com/movies.

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Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is 38, single, Catholic, confined to an iron lung for most of his hours (due to a crippling bout of childhood polio) — and determined to lose his virginity. He confides this wish to his laid-back priest (William H. Macy), wondering what God might think. The priest ponders it, only for a moment. "In my heart," he answers, "I feel like he'll give you a free pass on this one."

"The Sessions," written and directed with quiet charm and wisdom by Ben Lewin, is the story of how O'Brien ultimately succeeds on his quest, through six sessions with a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). It's based on real lives: O'Brien, who died in 1999, was a Berkeley-based journalist and poet, typing with a stick clenched in his teeth. (He was the subject of the 1997 Oscar-winning documentary "Breathing Lessons.") As played by Hawkes, he was a gentle soul with a wry sense of humor. Asked about his deep religious faith, he replies, "I would find it absolutely intolerable not to blame someone for this."

Though the film has a strong supporting cast (including Bellevue native Annika Marks as a caregiver on whom O'Brien suffers an unrequited crush), it's really a three-character comedy/drama, with the best elements of both genres. Macy, nearly unrecognizable in flowing robes and leonine waves of hair, is kindness personified. Hunt, naked both physically and emotionally for much of her screen time, delicately shows us a woman who thought she was able to stay distant from her clients but became unexpectedly moved by this one. And Hawkes, that master of an actor who's finally getting the roles he deserves ("Winter's Bone," "Martha Marcy May Marlene") makes O'Brien both innocent and knowing, using only his face to convey a man who scorns self-pity and keeps himself miraculously open to the adventures in life.

It's a film about sex, and it's not really a romance — but nonetheless, it becomes a deeply affecting story of love.

Moira Macdonald:

206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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