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The Sessions (2012)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/12/2013

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/19/2013

In my recent review for Robot & Frank, I talked about how truly "independent" movies (no matter how they are distributed) present us with ideas that are original and audacious. These can be topics which force us to think or present us with things which may be considered taboo. Plenty of movies have dealt with individuals with some sort of disability. Many of these deal with the main character learning to overcome their issue and become a better person. But, not many of them deal with the more mundane, everyday things which many of us take for granted. And even less talk about sex. That’s one of the things which makes The Sessions unique.

The Sessions tells the story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes). A victim of polio as a child, Mark’s muscles are now so weak that he can only move his head and he spends most of his day in an iron lung. However, he doesn’t let this stop him from getting an education, and he attends UC-Berkeley to become a poet. Mark requires a caretaker and becomes very close to Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and Rod (W. Earl Brown), who take turns watching over him. Mark is offered an assignment writing about handicap people and sex for a magazine. This hits home for him, as he is a virgin. He consults his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), on the subject (Insert your own joke here.) and they agree that it wouldn’t be a sin for Mark to try sex. Through a therapist, Mark learns of “sex surrogates”, people who have sex for a fee for therapeutic purposes. He is put in touch with Cheryl (Helen Hunt) and they meet to begin exploring the world of sex. Mark soon learns that sex is much more than a physical act and this creates some intense and difficult emotions for him.

All right, it's time to pitch our movie to a producer. "OK, in this movie, a guy who is paralyzed and confined to a gurney decides that he wants to have sex so he pays a lady to do it with him. Oh, did I mention that she's married...and did I mention that a priest gave him the go-ahead?" Just try and imagine how hard the door would be slammed in your face. And yet, that's the brave and original story which The Sessions tells. Based on the true story of the real Mark O'Brien, the film throws all kinds of topics in our face which will make us squirm. Here we have a guy who (literally) can't move a muscle and who has (literally) an incredibly nasally voice. This alone will make many viewers think twice. Then, the guy decides that he wants to have sex. OK, this is getting awkward. Then, the movie decides to get pretty graphic when describing the sex. And they seriously think that people are going to watch this?

The great thing about The Sessions is that it handles all of these crazy and taboo subjects with a very upbeat and funny attitude. I don't know what the real Mark O'Brien was like (see the last sentence of the review), but I can't help but wonder if Writer/Director Ben Lewin (who suffered the after-effects from polio himself and walks with the aid of crutches) attempted to channel the man's positive outlook on life into the movie. As portrayed here, Mark has apparently long-since come to grips with his situation and, as much as possible, he doesn't let it slow him down. Mark has some truly funny interactions with those around him, especially Father Brendan. The sex scenes are handled in a gentle and warm way. While Helen Hunt's nearly constant nudity certainly gives the scenes a realistic edge, things are never played in an exploitative way. But, that's not to say that the movie is all fun and games. You can't have a story about someone in Mark's condition and not have some serious drama at times. These scenes derive from the fact that Mark is an extremely emotional and apparently captivating person. People, especially women, are drawn to him and he feels love, but he also feels that his situation keeps him from feeling love in return.

The Sessions is buoyed by some great performances. John Hawkes, who is seemingly everywhere these days, literally lies down on the job here, but given that he can only move his head, he conveys a great deal of emotions as Mark. (How do you go from Eastbound & Down to this?) Helen Hunt received an Oscar nomination for her performance here, which is understandable, as she bares herself, both physically and emotionally. William H. Macy is clearly having a ball as the oddly liberal Father Brendan. The biggest surprise here is Moon Bloodgood. We've seen her vamp it up in action roles in the past, but as Vera, she's all business and her stoic face and dowdy look can't hide the fact that she truly cares for Mark.

The end result of The Sessions is a movie which is both challenging and heartwarming at the same time. Sure, we've seen movies about people with disabilities who were challenged to overcome obstacles, but virginity certainly wasn't one of them. This movie takes all of those stereotypes and throws them away, so that instead of being a handicapped person, Mark is simply a person.

The Sessions could have used more scenes with Mark's cat on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 36 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The image is a bit soft at times, but otherwise the level of detail is good and the actors are nicely separated from the backgrounds. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.2 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Being a quiet dramedy, we don't get that many dynamic audio effects here, but the dialogue is always audible. There are some minor stereo effects which show good separation and some of which let us know when something is happening off-screen. Some street scenes provide mild surround sound. I didn't note any particularly impressive subwoofer effects.

The Sessions Blu-ray Disc contains only a few extras. The Disc offers two DELETED SCENES which run about 4 minutes. One has a new scene with Cheryl and her son, while the other features Mark's imagination. "Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration" (4 minutes) offers comments from the director and the cast talks about his working style. I also learned here that Lewin walks with crutches. We hear from the star in "John Hawkes Becomes Mark O'Brien" (4 minutes), as he describes his performance and Hunt and Macy talk about working with him. "Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate" (4 minutes) has the actress discussing her character and her approach to the role. "A Session with the Cast" (4 minutes) gives a general overview of the story and characters. "The Women Who Loved Mark O'Brien" (4 minutes) examines the female characters in the film. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film. A documentary was made about the real Mark O'Brien and it's a pity that isn't included here.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013