Review: 'The Surrogate' gives John Hawkes career-best role opposite Helen Hunt

A smart adult movie about sexuality in America? Seems too good to be true

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<p>Helen Hunt and John Hawkes are exceptional in the new drama 'The Surrogate,' one of the biggest acquisition titles of Sundance 2012</p>

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes are exceptional in the new drama 'The Surrogate,' one of the biggest acquisition titles of Sundance 2012

Credit: Fox Searchlight

I have a dream that someday American filmmakers will finally grow up and stop being so insanely conservative about dealing with all stripes of human sexuality on film.

When we still live in a culture where a movie as ultimately restrained as "Shame" gets slapped with an NC-17, it's obvious that, on an institutional level, we are prudes.  It's ridiculous, too.  How many films do we see each year about mayhem and murder and violence and war and all manner of human horrors?  Those are all considered acceptable, and it almost feels like the more indulgent we are towards brutality, the more afraid we are to deal with sexuality in a mature manner.  Yet which subject plays a larger ongoing role in the daily lives of more people?

With "The Surrogate," writer/director Ben Lewin has taken the true story of Mark O'Brien and crafted a smart, heartfelt story about the way a lifelong polio patient, crippled and twisted by the disease, finally begins to explore his own sexuality in his late 30s, with the help of a sexual surrogate.  It is a fairly straightforward character drama distinguished by exceptional work from actor John Hawkes and strong supporting turns by William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, and Helen Hunt.  It is also worth paying attention to the largely clear-eyed and sophisticated approach it takes to the subject matter, including some fairly frank scenes between Hawkes and Hunt that are impressive and even moving.

O'Brien's handicap is so severe that he is almost incapable of motion, and he spends at least twenty hours of every day in an iron lung.  He's able to get out of it for a few hours each day, but only with a portable respirator.  His body is still responsive though, unlike many people who are paralyzed by spinal injuries, and while he has very little muscular control, he technically should be able to have some sort of active sex life.  Unfortunately, he's never been able to make the right emotional connection, and that's due in no small part to his own anxieties and fears.  He makes a few attempts, but they all seem to end with him emotionally crushed.  He reaches out to his local priest, played with warmth and gentle humor by Macy, to talk to him about his problems, and he seems resigned to living his life as a virgin.

Then he's referred to a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, played by Helen Hunt, and she begins a therapy treatment that is designed to not only teach him about his own capabilities, but also to give him confidence that will help him move forward in his relationships with women.  In their first meeting, Cheryl explains that they will meet six times, and that they will be trying different treatments in each meeting.  The rest of the film simply deals with the way that process plays out and the impact it has on O'Brien and those around him.

One of the best sexual scenes of the '90s was in "The Waterdance," in which Helen Hunt helps her newly-paralyzed boyfriend, played by Eric Stoltz, learn how to adapt to his new state.  To me, a great sex scene in a film is one that manages to convey the reality of it, whether emotional or visceral, and when characters are well-defined and connected by genuine chemistry, or when what we're watching is thematically important, essential to what the filmmaker is doing.  That moment in "The Waterdance" is a turning point for Stoltz and for Hunt both, and without it, it's not the same movie.

Here, every single time Mark and Cheryl are together, we're seeing growth between them, and Mark, in particular, realizes that he is a complete man in the ways that matter, and that his handicap is no impediment unless he makes it one.  Hawkes is remarkable in this film, with even his voice transformed from what we normally here.  He spends the entire film twisted into a painful, terrifying question mark of a man, desperate to connect to someone, and Helen, who is used to treating sex with her patients as a clinical form of therapy, devoid of emotion.  They each impact the other in major ways, though, and much of what makes the film work is seeing how they each take what they need from their encounter.  Mark wants to prepare himself for love in case he ever finds it, and Cheryl finds herself feeling something for this client, touched in a way that illuminates what it is she does for a living.

I think the film is visually middle-of-the-road, but in a clean, anonymous way.  There are some moves the film makes that frustrate me, like they were too aware of their rating and not really free to show everything in an honest and uncompromised way.  I can forgive that, though, because the cast is so great, and the writing is very direct and uncomplicated.  The film doesn't build in some over-the-top manipulation in order to make its points, but instead focuses on the small details between them, and as a result, when it does pay off, it's in a very organic way.  A special mention must be made of Moon Bloodgood here.  She's almost unrecognizable, and she plays Mark's nurse, a centered character never in danger of becoming more that that.  She's quiet in the film, but impressive. 

Fox Searchlight paid about a bazillion dollars to pick up the worldwide rights to this one, and if they're willing to be this adventurous with the rest of their pick-ups this year, I'll be as happy as possible  And remember… lots more to read here at HitFix as our Sundance coverage continues.

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Drew McWeeny
Film Editor
A respected critic and commentator for fifteen years, Drew McWeeny helped create the online film community as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, and now proudly leads two budding Film Nerds in their ongoing movie education.
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