Details: 94 mins, In Cinemas 8 November 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: By the age of 36, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), confined mostly to an iron lung as a result of childhood polio, is eager to lose his virginity before his dies. On the advice of his therapist and with the guidance of his priest (William H. Macy), Marc contacts Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate. Their journey together proves that sex is only the beginning.
Light touch guides superb Sundance award-winner.
SUNDANCE: The word ‘offbeat’ was made for movies like The Surrogate (aka The Sessions), an ensemble piece about a severely disabled poet’s quest to lose his virginity before he dies that was written and directed by a 65-year-old man whose last credit was an episode of Touched By An Angel. The Surrogate premiered here at Sundance to a rush of audience pleasure and a wave of enchanted tweets. Shortly after the premiere Fox Searchlight picked up the worldwide rights for US$6 million, making it the biggest deal of the festival thus far and ensuring an unreasonably long line for the eventual press screening.
The pleasant surprise about The Surrogate is that it has found a way to be the perfect Sundance film without pandering to the received Sundance aesthetic. Here offbeat is as offbeat does: rather than quirkiness the film is bent by actual quirks; rather than adorable non sequiturs The Surrogate offers actual wit. The distinction has become a pretty fine one—especially with a story as kitsch-prone as this one; it was quickly dubbed a cross between My Left Foot and The 40 Year Old Virgin—but writer/director Ben Lewin reminds you how refreshing a film with its own personality can feel.
Though he never met the real-life Mark O’Brien (played in the film by Sundance mascot John Hawkes), Lewin seems to have captured the disarming, sardonic voice of the San Francisco writer, who was confined to an iron lung for twenty hours of every day. The story was based on one of Mark’s articles, ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,’ and his poetry is woven throughout the script. At 36, Mark, a devout Catholic steeped in guilt over the childhood death of his little sister, has decided it’s time to become a man. He projects mightily onto his caretakers—including a young woman with a “Tudor Court face” and comely thighs—and is inevitably disappointed. Though he’s unable to move, his body has full sensation, and so like the vast majority of human history before him he begins to seek out sex in lieu of love and companionship.
In making this decision he holds numerous consultations with his parish priest (William H. Macy) and canvasses the able-bodied about their sex lives. These scenes feel more subtle than they might sound, the result of Lewin’s light touch on the page and on the set. When Mark resolves to hire a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), his misgivings about their initial phone conversation are expressed in a brief scene of him lying awake that night and addressing the Madonna icon on his wall. “Holy Mary,” he begins gravely, “what are ‘body awareness exercises’?” It’s the beat in between that makes the moment, and there are lots of similarly unexpected laughs in The Surrogate. Keenly observed scenes with peripheral players like caretaker Moon Bloodgood also work to build a continuum between Mark’s world of frustration and loneliness and the endless supply of both available to the rest of us.
What the film comes down to, for better and worse, are the sex scenes between Mark and Cheryl. As they’re happening they’re so raw and uncomfortable you can’t wait for them to be over; once they’re over you can’t wait for the couple to get back into bed. By evoking Mark’s emotions in the audience Lewin brings us inside the question of how intimacies are formed. Despite the fact that he has hired Cheryl to seduce him, Mark is not easily seduced. And yet by their second meeting (she restricts clients to six meetings, total) the pleasures and dangers of hiring someone to be physically kind to you ensnare them. How could they not? Can the seeds of true intimacy be planted anywhere, by way of willing sexual contact? How can you tell a professional touch from the real thing? Hunt and Hawkes are extraordinary in these scenes, though I did begin to wish they would explain why Mark must remain horizontal throughout the film; at times Hawkes seems to be doing the bulk of his acting with a magnificent nest of forehead veins. The slightly strangled voice he has come up with, however, feels perfect.
Plot holes open up around the issue of Cheryl’s marriage (to Adam Arkin), who seems okay with his wife’s line of work but not the crush her latest client develops. Aren’t men usually wired the other way? A few later scenes feel more contrived than what preceded them, but The Surrogate’s spell never quite breaks. Your heart, on the other hand…
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