It’s become kind of a cliche, famous actors playing the physically or mentally handicapped as a kind of sure-fire Oscar bait. Yet you’ve got to give it up for John Hawkes in “The Sessions”: He plays Mark O’Brien, a man paralyzed from the neck down who’s forced to spend most of his time in an iron lung, yet who decides he wants to find out what sex is all about, and hires a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to teach him. (Japan’s Eirin has given this an R-18 rating, not due to anything graphic on-screen, but apparently in general opposition to the whole concept.)
Hawkes, usually known for his intensely physical, often intimidating performances (in films such as “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), is utterly transformed here. Despite the physical challenges — things like learning how to dial a phone with a pen clamped in his mouth — it’s the total change of voice to fit the character’s sly, almost queeny sense of humor that’s most impressive. It gets a bit silly at times: Mark’s sharing of the details of his sex life with a sympathetic parish priest (played by William H. Macy) may seem a bit much to anyone who was actually raised Catholic — but it’s also life-affirming in an amusingly non-PC way: Mark may be crippled, but he’s a dawg. It’s all rather like last year’s French hit “Intouchables,” with a more risque sense of humor, but the sex-therapist angle is strictly Californian.