In playing the game of retrospect, I was looking forward to seeing what kind of critical reception would await The Sessions, and that the leads of the film would surely see waves upon waves of critical praise heaped upon them like so many blankets on a bed. The film came and went and received some of the acclaim, though perhaps not as much as I expected. So for me at least, the next question to ask about The Sessions is "Wha Happened?"
The film is directed by Ben Lewin, who adapted a screenplay based on a Mark O'Brien newspaper article titled "On Seeing A Sex Surrogate." O'Brien graduated from Berkeley and was a poet along with being a journalist. In addition and more importantly, O'Brien (in his mid-thirties at the time of the article) had contracted polio when he was six years old, and was living in an iron lung, which rendered him without the ability to move his limbs. O'Brien was put in contact with Cheryl (Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets), and Cheryl and Mark (John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene) have a half dozen sessions where Mark learns more about his constricted body and what he can do with it. Mark is left slightly spiritually conflicted by it, and he decides to seek counsel for it with Father Brendan (William H. Macy, Shameless), his neighborhood priest. The sessions have a deeper impact on Mark and Cheryl past the physical, and both have a slightly difficult time attempting to remedy them.
There are two things that one almost immediately notices while watching The Sessions, the first one being Hawkes' performance. Presumably using the Academy Award winning documentary short Breathing Lessons (which focused on O'Brien's life and work and included interviews with him), Hawkes mimicked O'Brien's vocal inflection and used a soccer ball underneath his body to help replicate his appearance outside of the lung, which Mark could do for a couple of hours at the time. The fact that Hawkes keeps this contortion throughout the movie, leaving his head and face as the only source of emotion is fascinating to watch, and as Mark, Hawkes is a convincing mix of humor, intellect and emotion as the relationship between he and Cheryl evolves as one session becomes the next. With this limitation of his faculties, I am left to wonder just what it is that Hawkes did to not get a lot of attention for his performance. He has been praised in the past and rightfully so, but I would hope he does not turn into the next Paul Giamatti; both gentlemen can act and deserve even more positive words than they generate.
With all of the work Hawkes does in the role, Hunt's performance has at least been generating good word of mouth and rightfully so. I do not pretend to know what kind of bravery it takes to strip down and bare everything in front of a camera and film crew, but I have to imagine Hunt must have had some sort of apprehension before doing it. Lewin manages to get the surprise of Hunt's nudity out of the way in a quick and almost professional manner so the story can get to brass tacks, and as she becomes more analytical about Mark's feelings about sex, she identifies more with his situation because she seems to encounter the same thing at home with an apathetic teenaged son and her husband (Adam Arkin, Sons of Anarchy). Having Mark's appreciation for her to spend this time is something she is touched by as they talk more and more, and the eventual end of the sessions hurts them both, perhaps more than she was thinking. She turns in stellar work.
But there is something about the movie that feels off. Lewin, a polio survivor himself who is crutch bound, handles the story as a hybrid between a comedy and drama, with two people in different environments thrown together and touched by one another physically and emotionally. Perhaps in taking on the story from that angle, one that would be less resonant with the viewer, it tends to lose such luster. The movie tends to be lighter viewing, and perhaps that is how Lewin desired it, and maybe if O'Brien were around he would have liked it that way. But if that was the desire, it seems to have been not as effectively communicated as desired.
That may be the flaw with The Sessions. What possibly may have wound up being a "great" film is ultimately just "very good," and the degree of positive vibes towards the work of Hawkes and Hunt in the film suffers for it. That may not be the right thing to identify about The Sessions, but for me, what could have been when it comes to the film might be more interesting than the story said film attempts to tell.
Fox presents The Sessions with an AVC-encoded 1.85:1 high-definition presentation, and looks sharp and quite beautiful. The mid-'80s color palette is reproduced accurately and nicely, and the film includes old video thrown into it, along with a visual sequence that includes slightly blown out whites, and none of them bat so much as an eye. Image detail is abundant throughout; one could even spot some textures on the mouthpiece Mark uses to type, and facial pores/wrinkles/hair is easily discernible, and the shots of Mark looking up into the trees as he is being shuttled from appointments are particularly gorgeous to look at. This is a nice viewing surprise.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track is dialogue-driven and thus without any real moments to stand out. However, it is given other ambient moments (walking on the street, or in a coffee shop) where the secondary channels have the opportunity to get some blood moving to other sonic extremities, so to speak. The subwoofer remains dormant through the film, though one gathers the impression that all of the channels could do the work if given the chance. This is complaint-free listening.
For the disc, a dusting of promotional material are the only things to speak of (Breathing Lessons is only 37 minutes and would have made for a good extra to have here, but such is life). Two deleted scenes (3:34) are forgettable, though one includes a funny dream sequence of sorts. Then five featurettes comprise the bulk of the material. "Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration" (4:01) includes Lewin talking about his process and the cast's thoughts on it and him, "John Hawkes Becomes Mark O'Brien" (4:26) covers Hawkes' transformation, while "Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate" (4:13) covers her metamorphosis. "A Session with the Cast" (3:50) has the cast presumably answering the 'What is the movie about?' question, while "The Women Who Loved Mark O'Brien" (4:24) has the actresses for the film talk about their perspective on Mark. The trailer (2:26) and a redeemable Ultraviolet code complete the disc.
The Sessions includes great work by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, there is little denying it. But I am left with the feeling that the film could have been even better than it was, and for that I am slightly disappointed. Technically the film looks and sounds fantastic, and the lack of bonus material does not help its case for being in your library. It is a must-view nonetheless, worthy of experiencing the performances.