The Sessions is a close-up look at the life of Mark O’Brien, a writer and poet paralyzed since early childhood from polio. In spite of being confined to an iron lung for the better part of each day and unable to move anything but his head, Mark O’Brien managed to graduate from Berkeley and went on to become a successful writer.
Based on true events, The Sessions is a touching mixture of comedy and drama that feels a little too slick to be a great movie but will find many fans that appreciate its charms. The driving force that propels the story is Mark O’Brien’s quest for sexual experience after decades of loneliness as a disabled man, filtered through his optimistic and humorous personality. John Hawkes give an Oscar-worthy performance in the role of Mark O’Brien, as his performance has already won the Golden Globe award for best actor. His careful handling of a tough role, confined to an iron lung for much of the film, is the main reason to watch The Sessions.
A virgin in his mid-30s due to his disability, O’Brien goes out seeking guidance for a solution to his problem. He develops a close relationship with his Catholic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who subtly encourages O’Brien to satisfy his physical and emotional needs as a man. Macy plays the laidback priest with uncharacteristic restraint from the veteran actor, as he becomes Mark’s friend and confidant.
A professional finally recommends to Mark the option of a sex surrogate. A sex surrogate is not a prostitute in the traditional sense, but usually someone trained in therapy to help people learn how to have a healthy sex life with their disability. In this case the sex surrogate is Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt. Having already won the Golden Globe for this role, she has also been nominated and currently expected to win the Oscar for it. It’s a challenging role as Cheryl has to emotionally connect with Mark and draw him out of his anxiety, built up over the years of his loneliness and guilt as a devout Catholic. The main narrative revolves around the sessions between Mark and Cheryl, and the impact it has on both of their lives. She heals his emotional problems through the physical relationship they share on a professional level, drawing him out of his shell.
Mark O’Brien had an engaging and sharp personality, even with his severe disabilities. John Hawkes effectively conveys Mark’s life through his magnificent performance, physically mimicking the disabled man’s condition to an uncanny degree. In typical Hollywood fashion, everything is a bit too neat and tidy in the feel-good message that the film tries to deliver, but it is still a touching movie at times. Most will check it out for the critical buzz and explicit scenes featuring a nude Helen Hunt, but the story has a wry wit to it that offsets the more disturbing aspects of disabled sexuality presented on the screen. A tough subject matter for any film, which has been handled with poise by its writer and director, Ben Lewin.
Shot with the Red One digital HD-camera, The Sessions looks spectacular on Blu-ray. From its opening frames, the precise cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson produces stunning clarity in 1080P. Aside from some conscious choices to the color-timing of select scenes, which stick out from the balanced color palette, this is a flawless transfer of an immaculate source.
The main feature runs a total of 95:07 minutes, encoded in AVC at an average video bitrate of approximately 23 Mbps. Presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1:85:1, there isn’t a single speck or artifact out of place. It is some of the cleanest video released on the format to date. The contrast and black levels are pitch-perfect, revealing exemplary levels of detail in the image. Focus is absolutely razor-sharp, producing suitable dimensionality for a drama.
In excellent news, the transfer from the digital intermediate shows no signs of sharpening or filtering. The completely halo-free picture possesses strong color fidelity, highlighting a saturated color palette in backdrops like a Catholic church. The scenes between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in their therapy sessions have an altered color-timing from the rest of the film. The balanced color palette in the rest of the film shifts to much warmer flesh-tones, at least in those limited scenes. Helen Hunt’s skin is particularly affected, as it strongly leans toward orange in them. It also appears some digital smoothing techniques have been applied strictly to her face, likely to improve her appearance in the more salacious moments.
The Sessions receives a standard 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. Nothing is wrong with the recording or the sound, but the movie is almost completely filled with dialogue and a minimal score. That creates crystal-clear dialogue and delicate instrumentation, but there is little surround action to get excited about or energy to drive your subwoofer to frenzied levels. The drama excels in the quieter moments, when the only audible noise is Mark O’Brien’s iron lung. A smattering of ambient noise is provided in the rear channels, particularly for the outdoor scenes.
French 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital are offered as dub soundtrack options, amongst others. There is also a 5.1 English Descriptive Audio soundtrack. Fox has gone the extra mile in terms of subtitles, offering 30 different choices. English SDH are one of the subtitle choices. All subtitles are presented in a white font. It is clear this disc was authored with a global audience in mind, with a plethora of foreign dubs and subtitles.
Fox has provided a smattering of extra features for The Sessions. The listing looks more generous than it really is in practice, since not a single featurette extends past four minutes. The entire cast and writer/director Ben Lewin all contribute in the form of interviews and brief glimpses of footage from the set. For a movie that has already picked up a few nominations and statues during awards season, the special features feel slightly insubstantial. The most interesting factoid revealed in them is that the director, Ben Lewin, is disabled himself. A UV digital copy code is also included, which redeems in an HDX version of the main feature on VUDU.
Deleted Scenes (03:34 in 1080P) – Consists of two different scenes: Cheryl and Son, Can Can Fantasy
Theatrical Trailer (02:26 in 1080P)
Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration (04:01 in 1080P)
John Hawkes Becomes Mark O’Brien (04:26 in 1080P)
Helen Hunt As The Sex Surrogate (04:13 in 1080P)
A Session With The Cast (03:50)
The Women Who Loved Mark O’Brien (04:24)
Sneak Peek – Trailers for the following movies, all in 1080P: Stoker, The Blu-ray Experience, Hitchcock: The Movie, The Oranges, A Late Quartet.
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