Not quite a real-life take on The 40 Year-Old Virgin, The Sessions recalls the sexual awakening of 38-year-old disabled writer Mark O'Brien whose muscles were wasted by a childhood bout of polio. But rather than being the butt of all jokes, O'Brien is a man who takes control of his life and laughs in the face of adversity - especially at his own inadequacies.
Such an indomitable spirit means that O'Brien is impossible not to like and the role is something of a gift for John Hawkes (of TV's Deadwood) who gets beyond the physical awkwardness to reveal a man who, if not for a cruel twist of fate, would have charmed the ladies with his sharp wit and poetry. Instead, he is forced to live inside his imagination.
Like a teenager, O'Brien lets his fantasies run away with him and falls madly in love with his carer until a proposal of marriage sends her running for the hills (of Europe). He only takes a more pragmatic approach to his love life when asked to write an article on sex and disability, enrolling for classes with a so-called 'sex surrogate', Cheryl.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl fully naked a lot of the time, and with a lack of self-consciousness that O'Brien finds alarming to begin with. Apart from his lack of experience, he is a devoted Catholic with a guilt complex and seeks guidance from Father Brendan (William H Macy). Fortunately for him, the priest is open-minded on the matter of sex before marriage.
Unfortunately for the story, absolution weakens its impact. Father Brendan assures O'Brien that 'God will look the other way' and it feels like a cop-out because O'Brien isn't then forced into a deep enough process of self-examination. His only obstacle to sexual fulfilment is a tendency to ejaculate before achieving full intercourse, and this is largely played for comic effect.
Of course, humour is O'Brien's way of dealing with discomfort, but this too creates a barrier when it comes to really getting under his skin. Cheryl records her own observations for psychological research, yet she could just as easily be a subject for study. She is given a free pass by a liberal husband (Adam Arkin) and while Hunt is fearless, the almost dismissive approach to sex is odd.
The sessions only become a problem later when Cheryl and O'Brien develop feelings for each other. It is inevitable in part because Hunt and Hawkes spark so well off each other and there is tenderness between mechanical manoeuvres. An ominous mood also starts to build, because O'Brien is emotionally immature and therefore more vulnerable than Cheryl.
In its barest form this is a traditional rites-of-passage yarn, dealing in first love and lost innocence, and even with a candid discussion of sex, it's mostly sweetness and light. Writer-director Ben Lewin is a TV veteran with a gentle touch, which is fine, if all you want is to while away a quiet afternoon.