Fox // 2012 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 26th, 2013
Based on the triumphant true story.
"I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this."
Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes, Deadwood) is a poet and journalist who contracted polio during childhood and has been paralyzed for most of his life. He spends the bulk of each day inside an iron lung, and he has come to terms with the fact that he probably doesn't have many years left. Mark is a religious man, but he has a secret desire that he feels may conflict with his faith: he wants to lose his virginity before he dies. He consults his priest (William H. Macy, Fargo) on the matter. The priest contemplates Mark's dilemma for a moment before concluding, "I think God will give you a pass on this one."
Mark hires a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets) to help him with his condition. By law, Cheryl is only permitted to have six sessions with each patient, but the hope is that she'll be able to help Mark overcome the physical and mental barriers that have prevented him from having physical relations thus far. Over the course of these sessions, Mark begins to develop strong feelings for Cheryl. Is there any hope that the solely professional relationship could eventually turn into something more?
It's always struck me as ironic that we Americans live in a heavily-sexualized culture, yet we're generally uncomfortable with discussing sex in a straightforward, honest, mature way. Yes, countless magazine covers in grocery store checkout line offer enthusiastic headlines about orgasms and sexual positions, sexually-charged jokes are unleashed at a rapid rate in nearly every popular sitcom and barely-clothed models adorn countless advertisements for cars, fragrances, department stores, food products and everything else under the sun. We're fine with sex as long as it's presented in a flashy, frothy or funny way. But when things turn intimate and serious? That freaks us out a little bit. As such, I'm always grateful for a film like The Sessions, which explores sexual subjects with level-headed tenderness.
Of course, a statement like, "I'm always grateful for a film like The Sessions," implies that there are other films like The Sessions, which isn't really the case (though if I'm forgetting any other movies about a paraplegic's quest to lose his virginity, please let me know). Writer/director Ben Lewin (working from an article written by the real Mark O'Brien) succeeds in making this potentially tricky material work with his matter-of-fact, no-nonsense approach. Despite its difficult moments and its unusual subject matter, this is essentially a film about fundamentally good people making an effort to be good to each other, and there are few things more moving than that.
The film's strongest scenes are those between Mark and Cheryl, as the disabled virgin nervously permits his kind-hearted therapist to guide him through a series of challenging steps. Though Mark is a nice guy under normal circumstances, he doesn't exactly make the best patient early on. His embarrassment and general discomfort with the situation causes him to snap at Cheryl. She responds calmly yet firmly: "Mark, it's not sexy when you yell at me." As they grow closer to achieving their goal, we're reminded that the excitement of sex often causes us to forget about just how complicated it can be. It requires a great deal of trust on both sides; it's something that can expose one's hidden vulnerabilities. That fact is magnified in this case, as Mark's physical challenges are exceptional and Cheryl must do her job effectively while remaining professional and avoiding emotional attachment (she has a husband who is supportive of her profession but nervous about its potential consequences).
The two central performances are nothing short of remarkable. John Hawkes has won great acclaim in recent years for his portraits of ambiguous menace in movies like Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Higher Ground, but in The Sessions he masterfully plays a man whose condition is made all the more heart-wrenching by his jovial nature. Thin as a rail and wheezing his lines, Hawke is alarmingly convincing and once again demonstrates his ability to completely embody a challenging role. Meanwhile, Helen Hunt turns in her best work in years, playing her scenes with a level-headed naturalism despite the fact that she's required to spend much of her screen time in various states of undress. Hunt expertly captures her character's struggle to separate her work from her personal life, and is memorably effective in a number of scenes in which she's forced to defend the validity of her work. Hunt's Oscar nomination was richly deserved; the fact that Hawkes was overlooked completely is a crime.
The Sessions (Blu-ray) delivers an excellent 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that offers pristine detail throughout. Though the film isn't particularly ambitious on a visual level, the image boasts about as much clarity as one could reasonably hope for. Facial detail is particularly strong, the level of depth is impressive and shadow delineation is superb. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is effective and low-key, balancing Marco Beltrami's understated score with the dialogue quite smoothly. Sound design tends to be minimal, but it's well-distributed when it's employed. The supplemental package is dominated by brief, fluff-heavy featurettes: "Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration" (4 minutes), "John Hawkes Becomes Mark O'Brien" (4 minutes), "Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate" (4 minutes), "A Session with the Cast" (4 minutes)" and "The Women Who Loved Mark O'Brien" (4 minutes). You also get a couple of deleted scenes and a trailer.
As much as I enjoyed William H. Macy's lovely performance as Father Brendan, the spiritual conflict never really seems to have much weight. Mark seems more or less intent on going through with his plan regardless of what his priest says, and the priest seems less alarmed by the potential spiritual consequences of Mark's actions than by Mark asking him to endorse something the Catholic church would disapprove of. After a short period, Father Brendan is simply an audience surrogate; someone to listen as Mark details the ups and downs of his life. There might have been more power if the notion of having sex before marriage were something that genuinely troubled either individual, but the film more or less plays this dilemma in a cutesy way that never permits us to take any of it too seriously. Still, this does seem more or less in line with the true story -- O'Brien's article only makes a casual reference to the priest and never gives any indication that he had any spiritual doubts.
The Sessions is a warm, thoughtful little movie that boasts exceptional performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. The technical qualities of the Blu-ray release are considerable, though the thin supplemental package is a disappointment. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Digital Copy