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A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest.
For more about The Sessions and the The Sessions Blu-ray release, see the The Sessions Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on February 12, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, W. Earl Brown
Director: Ben Lewin
» See full cast & crew
The Sessions Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, February 12, 2013
While we fearfully await Lars Von Trier's upcoming Nymphomaniac—which, if it's anything like Antichrist, is almost sure to leave psychological scars—here's a film that's contrastingly healing and hopeful in its frank depiction of human sexuality. The Sessions is based on the life of the late Mark O'Brien, a Berkeley-area poet and journalist who was stricken with polio as a child and spent most of his life in an iron lung, almost wholly immobile from the neck down. A virgin at age 38, he decided to hire a sex surrogate to show him the ropes—so to speak—and in 1990 he wrote a moving essay about the experience, taking his readers through each of his sessions while openly questioning himself, his faith, and his prospects for finding real love, physical, emotional, or otherwise.
The film adaptation of this essay is the work of 66-year-old Australian-American writer/director Ben Lewin—himself a childhood polio survivor—who made three minor comedies in the 1980s and '90s, helmed a few TV episodes in the early '00s, and then disappeared from the industry for nearly a decade. If The Sessions is any indication, Lewin is in for a major career resurgence. The film was the biggest acquisition at Sundance last year, earned supporting actress Helen Hunt an Oscar nomination, and has received near-universal praise for its candid treatment of sex and disability.
Scraggly character actor-turned-leading man John Hawkes has charmed us as an enigmatic cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and terrified us as the meth-addled Teardrop in Winter's Bone, but here, as the self-effacing Mark O'Brien, he simply breaks our hearts. Limited to head movements, facial expressions, and the effort-laden rasp of his nasally Boston accent, he gives a performance that's perfectly understated and real, especially considering how easily the role could've devolved into overplayed Oscar-baiting. He spends the entire film supine, his back contorted, his neck twisted to one side, taking occasional huffs from a respirator. When shirtless—as he often is—he looks like a prone St. Sebastian sans arrows, bony chest arched upwards in endless suffering.
At the beginning of the film, Mark is a martyr of sorts—to his crippling doubts about his own sexuality. His condition has left him unable to masturbate. He's never touched except when being bathed. He fantasizes about his caretaker, Amanda (Annika Marks), who leaves him because she can't reciprocate his feelings of attraction. When he gets assigned to research and write an article about sex-having disabled persons, he says he feels like "an anthropologist interviewing a tribe of headhunters." He's never had any kind of romantic encounter, so his views on sex are warped and exaggerated, causing him no end of anxiety. He's also a staunch Catholic, and since he assumes his prospects for marriage are slim, he feels conflicted about the church's prohibitions on sex outside of wedlock and his own desire to experience such a natural aspect of human existence. When a therapist tells him about sex surrogacy, Mark consults his long-haired progressive-ish priest, Father Brendan (a wonderful William H. Macy), who ultimately comes to the conclusion that God "will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it."
With the help of his new, strictly platonic assistant, Vera—Moon Bloodgood, nearly unrecognizable behind tortoise-rim glasses—Mark arranges a series of sessions with Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), the surrogate who will take him from light "body awareness exercises" to "full penetration." When she introduces herself, the nervous Mark opens with "your money's on the desk over there," and Cheryl—honest, un-coquettish—is quick to assert that she's different from a prostitute. She's there as a kind of physical therapy, to help Mark get in touch with his body and to break through whatever barriers are keeping him from expressing himself as a sexual being. By law, they're limited to six sessions.
These meetings make up the bulk of the film, and director Ben Lewin gets the tone just right. This is sex as we rarely see it in the movies—awkward and unpolished, funny and fun and a little scary, moving in fits and starts. Mark has an issue with premature ejaculation—understandable considering he's been pent up for his entire adult life—so Cheryl patiently assuages his fears and quite literally guides him to his goal. Their scenes together are far more intimate than prurient, and if there were any justice in the world, The Sessions would be shown in high school sex-ed classes to promote sexual understanding and the importance of good communication between partners. This may be a film about a man with an extremely specific disability, but Mark's feelings are universal; we've all had misunderstandings and misgivings about sex, and we've all doubted our ability to love and be loved in return.
Helen Hunt is completely unselfconscious in the role, which requires her to bare all for every other scene and convey a tricky mishmash of emotions as her character maintains a professional distance from the increasingly smitten Mark. Here, the film diverges semi-successfully from the actual events. Mistaking sexual reciprocity for romantic, Mark pens a love poem to Cheryl, who's going through her own minor crisis at home, with a husband (an underutilized Alan Arkin) who's wary of her new patient's attachment. The added conflict seems unnecessary and slightly underwritten, but I suppose this is better than making it more dramatic than it needs to be. More effective—and affecting—is Lewin's decision to not end the film as Mark did his essay, on a note of fearful uncertainty. Instead, he fast-forwards a few years in Mark's life for a denouement that shows that no one is beyond the reach of love. The film fully earns the power of the ending's sentiment, so be prepared to loose some hot, wet, salty bodily fluids. And yes, I mean tears.
The Sessions Blu-ray, Video Quality
There's not a fault to be found in The Sessions' gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray presentation. Shot digitally with the Red One camera system—and what must've been some seriously sharp lenses—the nearly noiseless image has a high level of clarity and great color depth. Even if you've long since become accustomed to high definition material, you may find yourself impressed anew by the sharpness of this picture; closeups, especially, are extremely detailed, with fine facial and clothing textures that are easily visible, even from a normal viewing distance. Look no further than the screenshots, which hold up well to the most ardent pixel-peeping scrutiny. The film's color grading goes for a realistic but slightly amplified look, with creamy warm highlights, strong saturation—see the vivid late 1980s clothing—and contrast that's good and punchy. At no point does the encode impose any distractions on the image there are no compression issues to report, no noise reduction or edge enhancement—none is needed—and no glitches or stutters. The high marks are definitely deserved.
The Sessions Blu-ray, Audio Quality
As you'd expect, The Sessions is a quiet, dialogue-driven film, and its lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track reflects that. The mix rarely finds occasion to rise above a conversational, indoor volume, but the sound is consistently clean, clear, and nuanced. The rear speakers are home to low-level ambience—ocean flashbacks, open church acoustics, some street noise—and the entire soundfield is sometimes engaged for the atypically melancholy music by Marco Beltrami, who's usually known for his percussion-heavy action movie scores, a la The Hurt Locker and Live Free or Die Hard. Most importantly, the actors' voices are always full and unmuffled and easy to understand. The disc includes optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles, along with Spanish and French dubs and an English descriptive audio track.
The Sessions Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Sessions Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I'm not ashamed to admit that the ending of The Sessions just wrecked me. Talk about catharsis—or, in the case of a film about sex, what we might better call release—I was practically sobbing as the credits rolled. The film comes from 66-year-old writer/director Ben Lewin, who came out of nowhere to deliver one of the best and most unexpected indie efforts of 2012. This one earns the oft-used "life-affirming" descriptor, and it features a pair of brilliant performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. 20th Century Fox's Blu-ray release is attractive too, with a stunning high definition presentation and some short but incisive special features. Buy it with a box of tissues—you'll need 'em. (But not, uh, for that.) Highly recommended!
The Sessions: Other Editions
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The Sessions Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Interview with Ben Lewin, Writer/Director of The Sessions - February 13, 2013
Blu-ray.com writer Casey Broadwater recently had the opportunity to talk with Ben Lewin, writer and director of the The Sessions, last year's undisputed Sundance hit, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy.
• The Sessions Blu-ray - December 12, 2012
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will release on Blu-ray director Ben Lewin's The Sessions (2012), starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, and Adam Arkin. The release will be available for purchase online and in shops across the nation on February ...
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