Sessions, The (US - BD RA)
Jonathan didn't think it was possible to like John Hawkes more than he did...
Paralyzed and confined to an iron lung since childhood, poet-journalist Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) has overcome adversity time and time again. But now, at age 38, he faces his biggest obstacle yet: losing his virginity. With the help of a beautiful sex therapist (Hunt), a sympathetic priest (Macy), and his own unbridled sense of optimism and humor, Mark embarks on an extraordinary personal journey to discover the wondrous pleasures that make life worth living. (From the Fox synopsis)
John Hawkes is the man. The first time he really caught my attention was in Miranda July's quirky Me and You and Everyone We Know. Since then I've noticed him in older movies and newer ones. A quick look at his IMDb page shows that he has currently acted in 117 roles. He's always been an excellent character actor, but he finally got some recognition for his supporting role in Winter's Bone. If you've seen him in that film and Martha Marcy May Marlene, you know what a scary and intimidating presence he is capable of having. Having seen these movies very recently, it was all the more awesome to see John Hawkes effortlessly slip into the roll of Mark O'Brien; a man who contracted polio as a young boy who spends most of his life in an iron lung. But Mark O'Brien didn't let his paralysis stop him from making the most of things. He got a degree from UC Berkely, wrote many articles and poems, and became something of a spokesperson on behalf of other disabled people. But The Sessions focuses on Mark's very specific goal of overcoming his virginity.
This isn't something that Mark takes lightly. As a devout Catholic, he believes in having sex only after marriage. Marriage, it seems to him, is something of an impossibility. After proposing to a girl he felt close with and being shut down, he turns to his priest (William H. Macy) about the morality of seeing a sex surrogate; a therapist that will actually have sex with him and help him learn what his disabled body is capable of. His priest gives him the go-ahead, saying he believes God will give him a pass on this one. Whether or based on reality or not, its a pretty good scene, and the only time William H. Macy's kinda-surfer kinda-biker priest character really shines. With approval, Mark gets in touch with Cheryl (Helen Hunt) and they set up a series of meetings. Mark's emotions are somewhere between excited and terrified, and Hawkes ability to turn Mark into this sweet, fragile character keeps you rooting for him. Mark being Mark, he can't help but fall in love with Cheryl, and that is when the plot complicates.
One thing is for sure: this movie is for adults. It handles sex in an incredibly mature way, but its also extremely frank about the nudity. In Helen Hunt's first scene she wastes no time getting out of her clothes and into bed with mark. It's a bit alarming at first, but when you look at it from a therapeutic stance it makes sense for her to dive right into things. The immediacy of the sexual intimacy between the characters is disarming in a good way. Handling the sexual content in a mature and blunt manner works perfectly for the movie. Despite being more graphic than most teenage sex comedies, it feels far less explicit and even noble at times. Hunt's performance doesn't just end with her characters occupation. We get to see how her professional intimacy with strangers has a toll on her home life. She never misses a beat in her performance, and her Oscar nomination is well-deserved. We watch as Mark begins to view her as more than a specialist he is seeing. There's a limit to the number of sessions that Cheryl and Mark are allowed to have, and you just know its a countdown to heartbreak for him. How he is going to deal with it is part of the suspense that keeps The Sessions interesting.
Hawkes is so ridiculously likable as Mark O'Brien. Acting mostly from the neck up, he still manages to take the movie and run away with it. I haven't seen a more sympathetic character on screen all year. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are the real reason to see this movie. Both performers are working at the top of their game, and its a shame Hawkes doesn't have a nomination from the Academy to boast for this performance. I can think of someone whose nomination he should have, but that's another conversation. While there is nothing aggressively wrong with Ben Lewin's direction, it is awfully bland. There isn't much attention devoted to the look of the movie or the movement of the camera. The camera is really there just to capture what's happening. But Lewin gets credit for writing the screenplay too, which handles the story of Mark's quest with a disarming grace and sensitivity. Not every beat in the story feels just right -there's a bit of obnoxious narrative trickery toward the end- but its clear that Lewin has great love and respect for these characters, and I found his affection contagious.
As usual, Fox doesn't pull any punches in the video department. The Sessions was filmed on the Red One digital camera and the best word I can pick to describe its appearance is clean. Digital noise is practically non-existent and you'd be hard pressed to find any obvious compression artefacts. Even though I'd argue that the film has a bland style to it, you can't fault this Blu-ray transfer. The movie is.. orange and teal. I get that its a pleasing blend of colors, but its been so overused in recent films that its hard not to get irritated. Sometimes that orange is the skin tones of the characters. Most of the movie has a very warm look to it, and most interior scenes have skin tones that are overcooked. The cast looks very tanned as a result. Its no fault of the transfer though, which is really about as good as you could expect it to look. Decided fans will not have anything to complain about with the look of this transfer.
Fox does a solid job with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included with this release. I feel like I say this a lot with the kinds of movies I review, but its unavoidable. This is a small movie with a focus on characters and dialogue, so most of the mix is kept front and center. Dialogue is the primary source of audio here, and every line, no matter how muttered it is out of Mark's contorted body, is perfectly audible. The soundtrack from Marco Beltrami ( I, Robot, Terminator 3) is a quaint and never aggressive in the slightest. It's as gentle as the central character, with light piano and seemingly distant string instruments. It sounds lovely in this 5.1 sound space, and the music is really the only time the LFE channel makes itself known. While the front channels open up plenty for the soundtrack, the rear channels felt exclusively reserved for ambient noises.
First up are the Deleted Scenes (HD, 03:34). There are two of them. The first is an additional scene between Helen Hunt's character and her son. He notices her crying and questions her about it. The second is a pretty awful scene where Mark imagines some of the nurses dressed up and dancing can-can style. Next up is Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration (HD, 04:01). This short feature is dedicated to Ben Lewin who talks about how the project came to him. Theres also interview footage of crew and cast members who talk about how much they loved his screenplay. John Hawkes Becomes Mark O'Brien (HD, 04:26) follows the previous featurette. This one is focuses on John Hawkes who talks about how he liked the script. The director and other actors talk about how great he is. Hawkes also talks about his preparation for the role and how he laid on top of a ball to make his spine look curved. Even in his interview John Hawkes seems so different than Mark O'Brien.
Continue the trend is Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate (HD, 04:14). This one focuses on Helen Hunt's performance, but they also talk to the real Cheryl who shares some information about the sex surrogate occupation. Hunt talks about how she was scared of the role but was fascinated by the real Cheryl and wanted to portray her well. A Session with The Cast (HD, 03:51) sounds like it may be an Q&A session or something along those lines, but really its just more interview footage from the same sittings as all of the other featurettes. Same goes for the final featurette, The Women Who Loved Mark O'Brien (HD, 04:24), which I was hoping would be interviews with the real women who knew Mark O'Brien, but its just more of the cast and film makers talking about characters in the movie. Last of all is a Theatrical Trailer (HD, 02:27).
The Sessions is a lovely story with two wonderful performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt that make it absolutely worth seeing. The storytelling and the direction are often bland, but the performers keep it highly watchable, and the mature material is handled with the perfect amount of sensitivity. Though there are multiple featurettes on this Blu-ray disc, they all feel like they were snipped out of a larger making-of feature. Extras disappoint, but there is nothing to complain about in the picture and audio department.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 12th February 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital Spanish 5.1, Dolby Digital French 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration, John Hawkes Becomes Mark O'Brien, Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate, The Women Who Loved Mark O'Brien, A Session With the Cast, Ultraviolet Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ben Lewin
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Genre: Drama and Romance
Length: 95 minutes
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