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The Sessions (Blu-Ray) Review

February 15, 2013 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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The Sessions (Blu-Ray) Review  

Directed by: Ben Lewin
Written by: Ben Lewin

John Hawkes – Mark O’Brien
Helen Hunt – Cheryl Cohen-Greene
William H. Macy – Father Brendan
Moon Bloodgood – Vera
Annika Marks – Amanda
W. Earl Brown – Rod
Blake Lindsley – Laura White
Adam Arkin – Josh
Robin Weigert – Susan
Rusty Schwimmer – Joan
Rhea Perlman – Mikvah Lady

Domestic Gross: $5,937,435
Worldwide Gross: $9,073,322

DVD Release Date: February 12, 2013
Running Time: 95 minutes

Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue

The story of Mark O’Brien is an empowering one, to be sure. O’Brien, the Berkeley-based man who suffered from polio and rose above his crippling disease to become known as a poet, journalism and advocate for the disabled, had previously seen his life documented in the short-form documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which won the Academy Award for the category in 1996, three years before his passing. O’Brien wrote an essay in 1990 for Sun magazine titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” about his experience losing his virginity at the age of thirty-eight. That essay, which was discovered by filmmaker Ben Lewin while searching for material on sex and the disabled for a sitcom pilot, became The Sessions. The film, which stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, first screened at Sundance in 2012 and was considered one of the breakout hits. Fox Searchlight snapped up the distribution rights and gave it a limited theatrical release in November to widespread critical praise. Now, ahead of the Oscars where Hunt is nominated for Best Actress, the film gets its bow on home video for those who were not able to catch it during its theatrical release.

The Movie

The film is set in 1988 and stars Hawkins as O’Brien, a poet and journalist who suffers from polio and spends most of his days in an iron lung to help him breathe. At thirty-eight, Mark is fairly well-adjusted but is tired of being without any real sense of emotional contact in his life. For part of that contact he attends church, where he begins to speak with the newly-installed Father Brendan (Macy). For the other part, he decides that he wants someone to love in his life. An assigned article about sex and the disabled shows him that in order to do that, he should learn what it means to be intimate. That means losing his virginity and thus he is put in touch with Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt), a sex surrogate who works with people to help them achieve that very intimacy that Mark is seeking. The connection that Mark and Cheryl will make over their six scheduled sessions has the potential to change their lives in ways that both perhaps didn’t expect.

The Sessions is written and directed by Ben Lewin, a filmmaker who is best known for a few minor comedies in the late ’80s and early ’90s as well as a couple episodes of shows like Ally McBeal and Touched By an Angel; however he hadn’t really done anything in the industry over the past nine years before The Sessions. Lewin is himself a survivor of polio, having contracted it at the age of six which is the same age that O’Brian did. It is clear that this film is a personal one to him and the care he takes regarding the script, which is based on O’Brien’s essay, pays off handsomely. One of the biggest flaws he could have taken is that of beatifying O’Brien, but he doesn’t. The character on the page is a complex one; while he is obviously the protagonist he is not without his emotional issues which include a hefty amount of misplaced guilt over a variety of issues. In no way is O’Brien a bad guy; rather, he is a human and humans, with all their complexities and flaws, are always more interesting and sympathetic characters than those without flaws.

Levin uses a framing device for The Sessions that could have been disastrous in that both Mark and Cheryl discuss what happened during their sessions; Mark does so with Father Brennan while Cheryl dictating notes. This opens Lewin up to the risk of a “tell, don’t show” philosophy which is never a good thing in film. Fortunately he mixes it in with the sessions themselves and it opens up the film to help us understand the dynamic between the two from both people’s perspectives. The two get off to an awkward start as Mark makes a few faux pas in their first meetings and Cheryl finds some challenges with working with him. It is the sessions in which the script really shines, as Lewin handles everything with a respectful but frank manner and uses both that the post-game discussions to show the building dynamic between the two.

While the film has a fine script, it is the performances that really bring it to life. John Hawkes is quickly becoming the best actor to not yet have hit marquee status between his work in Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene and particularly here, which is the best he’s been yet. While one might think it would be easy to just lie there, this really had to be one of his more physically-demanding roles with the way his body lays in a contorted position. Hawkes only has from the neck up with which to carry off his performance in this film and he does so masterfully. Equally impressive is Helen Hunt, who has earned a deserved Academy Award nomination for her work here. Hunt’s performance is the flashier of the two, and I mean that with only a slight pun intended; she spends much of the film nude for her involvement in the sex sessions. However, what makes both of their performances work so well is not only the near-perfect chemistry they have but the understated yet very real way they pull off these portrayals. Hawkes has a difficult job in trying to make an audience from an era where polio is virtually eradicated understand what the character is experiencing and he does so very well. For Hunt’s part, while she does in fact strip down it is her emotional vulnerability that works the best. Hunt’s Cheryl is unflappable and able to handle Mark’s situation with care but not baby him; at the same time Hunt shows the character’s growing affection well. There is an emotional breakdown moment for the character late in the film and it is striking in how understated it is, yet it works so well exactly because it doesn’t go over the top the way another actress might do.

The supporting cast in this film is relatively small compared to other features, but Lewin casts all the roles very well and everyone gives great performances. Macy is fantastic as Father Brennan, providing the sounding board for Mark’s spiritual journeys; Moon Bloodgood and William Earl Brown are equally good as Mark’s caretakers Vera and Rod. Robin Weigert, Annika Marks, Jennifer Kumiyama and Alan Arkin have smaller roles but all perform well as a nurse, Mark’s previous caretaker Amanda, the disabled woman who puts him in touch with Cheryl and Cheryl’s husband, respectively. This is an actor’s film, and Lewin pulls some great performances out of all of them.

Ultimately, The Sessions succeeds because not only do the cast and crew have respect for the life of O’Brien, but for Lewin’s script and direction as well. Lewin handles everything in just the right way; this is the kind of thing that in the wrong hands could have become some kind of horrible R-rated sex comedy. But Lewin and company are interested in more than that and they achieve far, far more. Funny, touching and poignant, this is a film that will stay with you for quite a while.

Film Rating: 9.0

The Video

Fox Searchlight took great care with the video presentation of The Sessions and it looks stunningly good. The 1080p/AVC-encoded video stream is pretty much flawless, capturing Lewin’s camera work in exquisite detail. The picture is incredibly sharp and in perfect focus while colors are vivid and blacks have their full depth and consistency. The picture is almost entirely free of digital flaws or artifacts; it appears as if the video (shot on digital Red One cameras) came through so well that there was no need to risk the kinds of edge enhancement or anti-aliasing that can cause noticeable flaws. This film has the kind of care taken to its visual presentation that you would expect from a much bigger film, and it pays off gloriously.

Video Rating: 9.5

The Audio

The audio track for The Sessions is presented as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and sounds very good. It is, unsurprisingly, a dialogue-heavy track; no explosions or the like come into play to give your surround-sound system a workout. But the sound is excellent for what it requires; dialogue comes through clear and concisely while the ambient sounds spend most of their time in the rear speakers (as you might expect) and come through clearly. Marco Beltrami’s score fits in perfectly well and never threatens to drown anything out. There are also Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in French and Spanish; subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.

Audio Rating: 8.0

The Packaging

Fox Searchlight has housed The Sessions in a standard Blu-Ray keep case with the cover art combining the faces of Hawkes, Hunt and Macy with critic quotes and the “based on the triumphant true story” tagline. It isn’t the most beautiful cover art really, but it fits the film well and is pretty much what you would expect out of a festival film-turned-critical darling. The disc itself contains the blue color scheme of the original theatrical poster and presents a quality, distinctive-looking disc that will not get lost in the shuffle. The menu options on the disc are very easy to navigate and clear to follow, making for an overall-solid packaging job.

Packaging Rating: 7.5

Special Features

There is no commentary track with this one, which is unfortunate because I would have loved to hear what Lewin, Hawkes and Hunt had to say about the film in-depth. We do however have the following featurettes and such:

Deleted Scenes: (3:34) There are two deleted scenes here. The first is a short but well-acted bit involving Cheryl discussing a development within the film to her son, while the second is a strange fantasy sequence wherein Mark imagines nurses and sex surrogates as can-can dancers. The first is poignant and the second is funny but you can understand why they were cut.

Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration: (4:01) This short focuses on Lewin and his conception of the film, drawing on his own experience as a polio survivor and his inclusion of his family within the film-making process. It includes interview bits with Hawkes, Hunt, Macy and Bloodgood, as well as his wife and daughter who are producers.

John Hawkes Becomes Mark O’Brien: (4:26) Hawkes gets center stage here in this EPK-style featurette, which has more interview moments from the cast and crew. You really learn here what Hawkes went through to portray the role, including the painful use of what he jokingly calls “the torture ball” to give his body the appearance of a curved spine.

Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate: (4:13) This short covers exactly what a sex surrogate does, and includes both Hunt and the real Cheryl Cohen-Greene talking about the film and Cohen-Greene’s experiences. There are some repeated bits from the other shorts but the information is interesting.

A Session with the Cast: (3:50) This short takes a look at not only Hawkes and Hunt, but also Macy, Bloodgood and Marks and the work they did for their roles. It’s all one-on-one interviews and not a group discussion the way the title might suggest.

The Women Who Loved Mark O’Brien: (4:24) This examines the characters of Cheryl, Amanda, Vera and (briefly) Susan and includes interviews with Lewin, Hawkes, Bloodgood, Hunt, Macy and Marks; it is an exploration of what drew these women to O’Brien and is done in a fairly enjoyable way.

Theatrical Trailer: (2:26) The theatrical trailer for the film, which captures both the humor and poignancy of the movie pretty well.

Sneak Peek: (11:04) This includes trailers for Stoker, Hitchcock, The Oranges and A Late Quartet, along with a commercial for Blu-Ray in general.

Special Features Rating: 7.5

The 411The Sessions has been labeled by some as a comedy and there is certainly a lot of humor in it, but that belies how touching and emotional the dramatic elements are. This is a film about love and sex that hits all the marks it needs to thanks to an engaging script and impressive direction by Ben Lewin as well as fantastic performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt along with the supporting cast. It never goes too dramatic not overly light and fluffy, instead striking a balance right in between to its betterment. The story of Mark O'Brien and his quest for love is given great form with this film, bolstered on home video by Fox's solid technical aspects. Anyone seeking a good character study would be well-served to get this one.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  8.5   [ Very Good ]  legend

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Jeremy Thomas

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