He has feeling all over his body. He has an instinct his time is running out. He would like to experience sexual intercourse with a woman at least once before he dies. At a time when sex is as common in the movies as automobiles, his need and his attempt to fulfill it requires an awesome dedication. The film is a reminder of how unique sexual intimacy is, and even how ennobling.
Mark is played by John Hawkes, who has emerged in recent years as an actor of amazing versatility. What he does here is not only physically challenging, but requires timing and emotion to elevate the story into realms of deep feeling and, astonishingly, even comedy. More than most movies, "The Sessions" depends on two actors if it is to work at all — and here Helen Hunt provides a performance of tact and delicacy.
She plays Cheryl, a sex surrogate in Berkeley, Calif. At a time when sex surrogates were fodder for comedians, she insists on the legitimacy of her profession and explains the ground rules to Mark. They will have six meetings, no more. They are not working together in order to fall in love but to achieve a specific physical purpose. He understands this, although there may be times when they both feel challenged. Their circumstance is complex and very far from casual.
What's especially brilliant is the way the movie, written and directed by Ben Lewin, is specific about precisely what is happening. Although the movie is rated R, and Helen Hunt is seen nude at some length, no actual intercourse is ever seen. That's wise. It's the idea that counts. As she tells him specifically what she's doing and why she's doing it, it becomes almost as fresh for us as it is for Mark.