POET and journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is paralysed from the neck down and requires an iron lung to breathe.
He is completely reliant on nononsense nurse Vera (Moon Bloodgood), who wheels Mark around California with a breathing tube.
When he is asked to pen a feature on Sex And The Disabled, Mark meets with sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt, pictured), who believes she can help him overcome his self-doubt and perceived limitations during intense one-to-one sessions.
Cheryl slowly breaks down Mark’s defences with body awareness exercises. An intense bond forms between the two, and after each meeting, Cheryl returns home to compile her notes before cuddling up to her husband Josh (Adam Arkin).
Inspired by a true story, which was brilliantly immortalised in Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons, The Sessions is a deeply emotional character study that eschews smuttiness and mawkish sentiment, presenting Mark’s condition with unflinching candour.
William H Macy provides comic relief as the local priest who becomes Mark’s confidant, while Hunt bares everything for the role, delivering her best performance since As Good As It Gets.
Lying on gurneys and beds for almost the entire film, Hawkes effortlessly conveys his character’s maelstrom of insecurities with fearlessness and tenderness.
It’s a virtuoso portrayal of a gentle spirit who refused to be overwhelmed by his disability, and recalls the tour-de-force theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Hawkes really is that good.
His omission from this year’s Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards is bewildering.