The Sessions Blu-ray Review
Sexuality is always a tricky subject to tackle in any realm of life. In movies, it’s been mostly played for laughs in movies like AMERICAN PIE and the teen sex comedies of the 80s. When approached seriously it can invite snickers or derision like in Stanley Kubrick’s last film EYES WIDE SHUT. Granted that was a strange film, but it always is tough topic to broach. THE SESSIONS is the latest to delve in these murky waters. This is an interesting little film that explores sexuality and the disabled. It does so with an ease about it that is hard to resist.
THE SESSIONS is based on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by the late poet Mark O’Brien. Mark (John Hawkes) was stricken at an early age by polio which left him paralyzed from the neck down and having to rely on an iron lung to survive. Mark could feel things below his neck, but his muscles did not work correctly. Even with these obstacles, Mark lived a remarkable and full life. Most of the action takes place in 1988 when Mark was 38-years-old. Up to that point Mark had achieved a lot as a poet and journalist. The one thing that he had not experienced was having sex. This was a hard proposition for him because his spine was extremely crooked.
It is quite obvious that director/screenwriter Ben Lewin had a lot of affection and admiration for Mark. Lewin himself contracted polio at a young age and still has to use crutches to this day. Lewin goes about this topic with warmth, affection and humor thrown in. Mark is a feisty guy and likes to spout off about his condition and life in general. He has some difficulties with the aides that he employs. He fires one of them because he thinks she is repulsed by his physical reactions to her touch. He develops feelings for the young female aide who replaced her. This is where human nature comes into play as she plays closer attention to his needs. She enjoys taking him outside to picnics and clothes shopping. The situation becomes untenable for her when he tells her that he loves her. It is not like she is disgusted by him, but more like that she doesn’t know how to handle this revelation. That drives the plot further and shows Mark what he needs to do.
Much of the humor of the screenplay is derived from the relationship Mark has with his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Mark goes into much detail on what he is feeling with his urges. It is funny to see how at first the priest squirms with this knowledge. Father Brendan soon is comfortable with their talks and gives Mark advice that he seeks. I am not sure I completely bought this character and some of the simplistic advice he doles out. But I did look forward to these scenes with the much needed levity that it brought.
Mark soon hires Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate to erase the virgin from his status. Hunt attacks this role with gusto. It must have given her pause to be so naked literally and figuratively on the screen. She needed to be both to make this true life character work. Cheryl is a no nonsense kind of gal. She says what’s on her mind and doesn’t mince words. It is fascinating to watch the transformation of the relationship between her and Mark. She states up front what is involved with this treatment so to speak. There is a good line about the difference between a prostitute and a sexual surrogate. A prostitute wants repeat business, while she caps her sessions at six. A prostitute also probably doesn’t care about breathing exercises and getting her clients open to the idea of intimacy and what it entails.
Mark and Cheryl don’t get off to a great start. He yells when she tries to remove his clothing. It is a learning process for both of them. As the sessions proceed, they actually grow fond of each other. He asks her out to coffee and writes her poetry. She doesn’t know how to handle her growing feelings. Her main focus has always been to help her client and be on her way. Mark makes her think about things in her life like her conversion to Judaism for her husband. There is a beautifully realized moment where Cheryl caresses Mark’s chest. It is fair to assume that Mark had not been touched much this way. You feel sadness that this has been deprived from his life, but then you are uplifted that he is experiencing it now.
Special notice has to be given to John Hawkes for his performance. I frankly don’t know how he was passed over for an Oscar. The only thing I can come up with is name recognition. Hawkes gave himself so completely to the role that he may have messed up his spine for life. He also had to change his speech pattern to adequately portray how the disability affected Mark. There are some great scenes how he used the phone and wrote his poetry. These are things that we take for granted and Mark had to struggle with the simplest of tasks. I never once felt sorry for Mark and his plight though. He persevered and thrived where others would have wilted. Hawkes was able to bring humanity to the character.
THE SESSIONS works on many levels about sexuality and the disabled. It also showed that you should live your life to the fullest no matter what obstacles stand in your way. That is the lesson I got from Mark O’Brien. The world was definitely a better place when he was in it.
Video: Robust use of both light and dark colors stands out here. This is especially true as lighter colors are used to possibly signal the sexual awakening of Mark. The format is put to good use.
Audio: I was astonished how crystal clear the dialogue was. This could easily have been a problem with the way Mark talks, but everything is audible.
Deleted Scenes (3:34): 2 scenes in all. One was a scene between Cheryl and her son. It dealt with her reaction to the poem Mark wrote her. The other scene is a fantasy sequence by Mark about his upcoming involvement with a sex surrogate.
Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration for the Sessions (4:01): The director discusses his attachment to the material and Mark O’Brien. The movie was a family affair with other family members involved in the production. The actors talk about the director and his amazing energy.
John Hawkes Becomes Mark O’Brien (4:26): Great feature about Hawkes’s preparation for the role and what he went through. Some fascinating tidbits on what he used to get the curved spine and the revelation that there were no special effects used.
Helen Hunt as The Sex Surrogate (4:13): Hunt discusses her role and her feelings about it. The real Cheryl Cohen-Greene chimes in on what she does in her profession. The director and actors express their admiration for Cheryl.
A Session with The Cast (3:50): The actors talk about the story of Mark O’Brien. O’Brien’s sense of humor gets mentioned in several features by Hawkes and that he wanted that to come out.
The Women Who Loved Mark O’Brien (4:24): Various actresses expound on what their character meant to Mark.