Cheryl is not a prostitute. Played by an oft-naked Helen Hunt, she says this over and over again, maybe to convince herself as much as her clients. She does, after all, accept money for sex. She's a sexual surrogate, and the therapy she provides is the type of healing Marvin Gaye used to sing about.
Taking cues from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, writer/director Ben Lewin's film is a study of spiritualism and sexuality through the eyes of a man held prisoner inside his own body. Based on the life of polio-stricken poet Mark O'Brien, who is played with beautiful empathy John Hawkes, the film regards the paralyzed, iron lung-bound, close-to-death man as a man who asks not for pity, but for help and grace.
A devout Catholic, he seeks approval from his priest before he hires Cheryl to not be a prostitute while still having sex with him. Lucky for him, he finds the coolest priest ever, played by William H. Macy, who is fine with breaking the whole no-sex-before-marriage rule, given Mark's circumstances.
The suspense and drama boil down to a few questions:
* Is Cheryl getting sweet on Mark, who falls instantly in love?
* Will they be able to work their way up to actual sex within Cheryl's strict, six-session limit?
* Will Mark gets the fulfillment he seeks, spiritually and, ahem, otherwise, or will the whole thing just pile onto his lifelong frustrations?
Methodical and awkward, the narrative unfolds painfully, while never losing its grip on the tender subject matter. You feel as embarrassed as Mark does when Cheryl disrobes, as if you're snooping on a moment too private for the eyes of an outsider. But also, you get the feeling that Cheryl, who is determined to keep a clinical, professional approach to a passionate act, wouldn't mind the audience.
The performances by Hunt, Hawkes and Macy are all stunning, and I'll cheer any awards they receive. Their film is more than a skin flick, despite it definitely being that. Just as Cheryl is more than a prostitute, while definitely still that.
Starring Helen Hunt, John Hawkes and William H. Macy. Written and directed by Ben Lewin. 95 minutes. Rated R.