Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
When Mark O’Brien was six years old, he contracted polio; the disease confined him to an iron lung, though he could leave it for a few hours a day on a gurney. In spite of his numerous challenges, he graduated from UC-Berkely, and became a well-known poet and journalist. And when he was 38, he decided he wanted to lose his virginity. Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate is the story of how that happened.
It certainly didn’t happen easily. To work through the considerable difficulties, Mark (John Hawkes) engages the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), “a sex surrogate,” he explains, “who would be sensitive to my particular needs.” Though she accepts money for sexual contact, she’s not a prostitute (as she takes pains to explain); it’s a very specific, erm, hands-on therapy, and she approaches it in a sensitive but businesslike manner. Mark, on the other hand, is incapable of being as cavalier about the endeavor, and one can’t help but empathize with his anxiety.
Summarized, The Surrogate sounds like the kind of movie that could fail in a million different ways; one imagines a maudlin flimflam about the power of positive thinking and human contact, or a teary examination of O’Brien’s illness from a movie-of-the-week perspective. Lewin (who directed and wrote the script, adapting O’Brien’s story on the experience) dodges those trapdoors masterfully. First off, the picture has a wicked sense of humor—some of it provided in dialogue, some from the witty and literate narration, which is well-used but not over-used.
More vitally, he’s got two game and brave actors who are willing to take some considerable risks (and I’m not just talking about how much of the movie they spend naked). Lewin’s script doesn’t shy way from the logistics or the awkwardness of their encounters—indeed, those elements are among its primary preoccupations. But the fact that the director and his actors are willing to look right at this material and play it without winking or cheapening it renders the picture all the more captivating. Their direct approach forces both actors into playing some acting beats that are unbelievably tricky. Watch closely how carefully she handles their coffee meet-up; witness his devastating work in their final shared scene, how hard he struggles to hold his mask in place. Hunt is an actor who’s somewhat disappeared over the last few years, while Hawkes is a respected character actor finally achieving some name recognition. They’re evenly matched here, each bringing out the other’s best qualities and hidden depths.
William H. Macy provides solid support as an unexpectedly convincing priest who becomes Mark’s confidante; the picture’s approach to his faith is a refreshing one, taking religion seriously, but not as something immune from irreverence. The supporting players are excellent all-around (Moon Bloodgood is particularly memorable as his practical attendant Vera), though Adam Arkin (as Cheryl’s husband) could have probably used an extra scene or two. Marco Beltrami’s music occasionally pushes too hard, and Hunt’s Beantown accent is a bit shaky. But this is niggling; there’s great sadness in The Surrogate, and great humor as well. It’s a moving, sweet, beautiful little movie.
"The Surrogate" screens at the Sundance Film Festival on 1/26, 1/27, and 1/28.