In the movies, pretty adults are supposed to have sex. The male lead and the female lead need to be our idealized selves in an ideal relationship and they need to have attractive people sex. But in the real world, people find a way to fall in love and get it on even if they don’t have chiseled abs or amazing breasts. And then there are those people where, due to their physique, we wonder if sex is even an option and we’re sure that thought has crossed their minds as well. And no matter our physique, we’ve all probably wondered if we’ll ever find love. Those thoughts—of finding love and sex—crossed the mind of writer and poet Mark O’Brien. At the age of six, O’Brien’s body was ravaged by polio and he was placed in an iron lung, which he could only leave for a few hours at a time. As John entered his 40s, he still hadn’t had sex or found love, and in Ben Lewin‘s The Surrogate—a movie based on O’Brien’s real experiences—he searches for both. The Surrogate comes right up to the line of being painfully sentimental and mawkish, but strong direction and amazing lead performances make the film inspirational, funny, and genuinely heartwarming.
Mark (John Hawkes) is intelligent, religious, witty, and would have women tripping over themselves to be with him except for one thing: being stuck in an iron lung and the inability to move one’s body makes courtship somewhat difficult. When he’s asked to write an article on sex and the disabled, Mark seeks out a sex surrogate and finds Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Cheryl clarifies that she’s not a prostitute because she doesn’t want repeat business. She and Mark will have six sessions where she teaches him how to maintain an erection, have prolonged sexual intercourse, and basically enjoy the sex non-disabled people have. With the counsel of his compassionate priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), Mark explores the mixed feelings he has about his sexual awakening, his desire for love, and his complicated feelings for Cheryl.
The film relies heavily on characters voicing their thoughts. Mark provides voiceover narration, talks about his feelings with Father Brendan, and Cheryl takes voice notes on her sex sessions. For Mark, the voice-over is essential since Hawkes is denied body language beyond facial expressions. After this year’s Oscar nominees, I’m done predicting who will get nominated. All I’ll say is that John Hawkes gives an Oscar-worthy performance. It’s in the tradition of My Left Foot where an actor is denied some of their most essential tools and nevertheless manages to give an unforgettable performance. Some may be a bit put off by Hawkes’ voice, but it’s not a thoughtless affectation. The voice makes total sense when you consider that someone who’s force to lay on their back all the time and who has breathing problems may talk a little different. It’s this kind of attention to detail that adds even more authenticity to a performance that’s wry, sad, insightful, and never manipulative.
The supporting cast is also terrific with Macy providing both comic relief and an understanding sounding board for Mark. The Surrogate explores (although not in as much detail as other parts of the story) how Mark’s religious guilt conflicts with his desire to live a fuller life, which involves having sex outside of marriage. However, the religious aspect is scaled back once Father Brendan gives his consent for sex outside of marriage (he believes the Lord will give Mark a pass). While Mark’s Catholicism does color his character, it’s mostly used as device to provide Mark with the ability to confess his feelings.
Hunt gives one of the bravest and best performances of her career by making Cheryl completely comfortable with not only her body but her approach towards sex. We’ve never really seen a character like Cheryl, a woman who has the demeanor of a therapist, but also someone who is going to a place of intimacy that could easily move beyond the physical and become emotional. This is all underneath the character’s emotional journey where she begins to have feelings for Mark, but also feels close to her husband (Alan Arkin).
Despite the multifaceted aspects of Cheryl’s character, the film is at its best when we’re with Mark. For him, it’s not simply a matter of wanting to have sex before he dies. His actions aren’t spurred by the specter of death but by his willingness to embrace life. What makes his journey so bittersweet is that his time with Cheryl is only a window into a life he never had. But it’s how he deals with his obstacles that makes Mark an inspiration. The thoughtful conflict is how a man who has had to ignore his body must finally understand what his body can do rather than what it can’t do. But this conflict never feels heavy-handed because Lewin’s script is always honest to Mark’s emotions. The night after Cheryl tells Mark that their first session will involve “Body Awareness Exercises”, he lays awake in his iron lung, looking at a portrait of the Virgin Mary, and thinking, “Holy Mother of God? What are body awareness exercises?” This wonderful blend of humor and honest emotions runs throughout the film.
The Surrogate takes the story of a man whose defining physical attribute is his disability, and finds a way to turn it into a universal story about the fears and hopes we all have about sex and love. Mark O’Brien isn’t trying to be just like the rest of us. He already knows he’s different and he’s not embracing a Hallmark card reading “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s about making sure that’s what on the inside doesn’t stagnate, and having the courage to make sure your actions count.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: