"I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame somebody for all this," says Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) to his priest (William H. Macy), cracking jokes in church about his steadfast belief in God after surviving childhood polio, only to wind up a 36-year-old virgin, paralyzed from the neck down and living in an iron lung 20 hours each day. If the hereafter hands out awards for Best Sense of Humor in the Face of Crap for a Life, this guy has a mantel full of trophies.
The late O'Brien was a poet and journalist, as well as the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary Breathing Lessons. And in the late '80s he hired a sex therapist to help him get over the hump of no humping, his personal annoyance with being the Last American Virgin (he was a bit too early, sadly, for the inspiration of the Murderball guys and their headstrong, by-any-means-necessary brand of sexual gratification). Played by Helen Hunt -- whose surfer-mom body is on full, bold display, refusing the distracting trend of no-nudity clauses in contracts -- sex surrogate Cheryl is warm, professional, forthright and kind but has the sort of therapy-only boundaries a person in her line of work would have to possess to keep her head on straight. And together they do "it." A lot.
In fact, their sex appointments take up most of the film's running time (if you don't know what "reverse cowgirl" is, you will when it's over) and writer-director Ben Lewin has chosen the wise path of presenting all of it matter of factly and without prurience. In fact, it's so professionally handled that at times their "sessions" feel more like an especially naked round of occupational therapy rather than something that might generate heat between two active bodies, even when Hunt is straddling Hawkes's face.
Emotional ties develop, and that's against the rules, but you'd probably fall for O'Brien yourself. Played respectfully and stripped of awards-grab histrionics by Hawkes, he writes poetry to Cheryl, he delivers intelligently funny play-by-play to his priest ("My penis speaks to me, Father") and he's sympathetically nervous when it finally comes down to crossing the intercourse line in the sand. You will root for him to fornicate successfully and when he accomplishes the task, you'll exhale with him, proud of his timid, apologetic orgasm.
But the best news here is that the film never stoops to fake, pushy heartwarmth. And it could have. Easily. It's almost movie law when the main character is disabled, a way to make the audience feel better about their deepest "better him than me" feelings and to push a clear-cut capability agenda, the other movie law that assures us all that people with challenged bodies can do anything if they screw up all their courage and pluck and set their mind to it. Those tired, pandering ideas are abandoned in favor of calm, measured truth and a detachment from gooey feelings. Of course, that means a sort of dryness prevails instead. So if, in the end, it comes off a little too much like a clinical, studious TV movie, blame the restraint, not the subject matter, and forgive it for needing that little extra dose of horniness.