An entertaining parlor game to play after you’ve seen “The Sessions” — after you’ve dried your eyes and let the aura of profound tenderness dissipate — is to imagine the many ways the film could have gone wrong. A man in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity? It sounds like a bad joke or a worse “Saturday Night Live” sketch. At the very least, such a story would have to steer equally clear of exploitation and sentimentality, resisting both the urge to gawk and the path of easy pity. One way lies sleaziness, the other saccharine, and either would sink this project.
Anyway, all movies are manipulative — that’s their pleasure, when done right — and “The Sessions” is no exception. But the achievement of this simply told, exceptionally fine film is the clarity with which it portrays the drama of a good soul in an inert body. There was a real Mark O’Brien — a Boston-born poet and journalist who was the subject of a 1996 Oscar-winning documentary short (“Breathing Lessons”) — and the film is derived from an article he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper. By moving in close and listening to the spaces between the words, the movie explores a yearning — for love, for connection, for experience — that’s the essence of the human journey.