Published on January 25th, 2012 | by Ethan Mantel1
Sundance 2012: ‘The Surrogate’
One of the most buzzed films of the festival and recent Fox Searchlight acquisition, The Surrogate, directed by Ben Lewin, is a touching biopic featuring an unusual performance by John Hawkes as the polio-ravaged journalist and poet Mark O’Brien and a bold performance by Helen Hunt as O’Brien’s sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene. Full review is at the break.
Mark O’Brien is a Berkeley grad, writer, poet, and journalist, and added to the fact that he is confined to a gurney at all times and an iron lung for at least 20 hours a day because of a crippling case of polio as a child, O’Brien is clearly a man of intense drive and perseverance. Also a devout Catholic, he uses his priest Father Brendan, played with a brilliantly subtle humor by William H. Macy, as his outlet of his insecurities, fears, and general musings.
Everything changes for Mark when he falls in love with one of his attendants Amanda (Annika Marks). When he is rejected, Mark becomes acutely aware of his virginity and his general lack of knowledge about physical love, and when asked to write an article about disability and sexuality, he readily accepts, hoping to learn a thing or two.
While researching the article, he learns about sex surrogates, a sex therapist that will work with a disabled client to get them to a place where they are comfortable with sex on their own. Terrified by the guilt of pre-marital sex and the possibility of failing as a sexual performer, O’Brien, with the encouragement of Father Brendan and his new attendant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), finds Cheryl Cohen Greene to help him with his sexuality. Through several sessions, the two achieve great leaps in O’Brien’s sexuality and simultaneously grow closer than either of them thought possible.
Based on O’Brien’s memoirs, Lewin’s film is an amazing depiction of a true story that is fascinatingly intimate. The movie’s essence is in the “session” scenes between Hawkes and Hunt, where Hunt literally bares it all and Hawkes, lying prostrate as he is undressed and physically manipulated, reveals O’Brien’s deep secrets and insecurities, especially about his sexual performance (all-too briefly practiced for both of them in the first couple sessions).
In essentially every other scene outside of the bedroom, O’Brien’s cleverness drives the dialogue. His mind is unusually sharp, his good humor a pleasure to observe, and despite this being a fictional portrayal, it leaves an impression that the real O’Brien, who passed away at the age of 49 in July of 1999, could not have been any less charming and clever. Always entertaining—especially in O’Brien’s conversations with Father Brendan, whose conservatism is constantly being amicably challenged by O’Brien—and sometimes deeply touching, Lewin’s writing of O’Brien comes across as genuine and undeniably endearing.
If The Surrogate receives less than three Academy nominations next year, it will be surprising, in that it would not be a stunning feat for this to garner more than several nominations for the 2013 awards. Admittedly we have a long year ahead of us, but the quality of this film is undeniable. As part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition category at Sundance, this biopic makes a strong case for itself as a contender for the top prize of the festival this year and will, when it is released, likely be one of the better films of this year.
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