The Surrogate

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

John Hawkes stars in a surprisingly accessible drama about an adult trying to lose his virginity while confined to an iron lung.

The real-life story of how a polio-stricken man contrived to lose his virginity under the expert auspices of a sex surrogate has been turned into surprisingly accessible and emotionally effective material in The Surrogate. At once entirely frank and downright cuddly in the way it deals with the seldom-visited subject of the sex lives of people with disabilities, this well-acted and constructed film could be massaged by an inspired distributor into a considerable commercial hit.

Based on the life of the late poet-journalist Mark O'Brien, whose physical incapacities required him to write by tapping on keys with a stick he held in his mouth, the film bears an obvious kinship with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But auguring much more favorably for it in the marketplace is the similarity of its structure and emotional current to The King's Speech; like that royal hit, this story centers upon a man overcoming a handicap through an unlikely tutor, resulting in a breakthrough that is comparably emotional. Using interior monologues to reveal the inner life of an essentially immobile man and interlacing levels that invoke religion, medicine, sex, psychology and art, writer-director Ben Lewin easily establishes audience sympathy for Mark (John Hawkes), a painfully thin man with an oddly twisted body who requires confinement to an iron lung for all but a few hours per day. At 38, Mark figures he's "probably getting close to my due date" and realizes he's never going to have sex unless he does something about it soon.

This being Berkeley 1988, women who work as sex surrogates are not impossible to find, although Mark lucks out in locating one as articulate, sensitive and in such great physical shape as Cheryl (Helen Hunt). During their first encounter, Cheryl strips naked and commences body-awareness exercises designed to relax the monumentally nervous Mark. Nude much of the time, the actress' lack of self-consciousness matches her character's verbal frankness. (Her performance may be physically bold, but it is equally marked by its maturity and composure.) However uncertain he is, and no matter that he repeatedly gives new meaning to the concept of premature ejaculation, Cheryl is reassuring and positive.

Cheerful, in fact, is the operative word here, along with an omnipresent feeling of goodwill. Love and understanding are at the core of virtually everyone and everything, which does rather give Surrogate the status of a feel-good fairy tale. But most decisively, in audience terms, it argues in favor of living a full life, whatever one's personal constraints.

There is further inspiration to be had by the fact that Lewin, who has had a long British and American television career, at age 65 appears to be the oldest filmmaker to have ever launched a new film in the U.S. competition at Sundance. In his story, too, lies a comparison to that of David Seidler, the seventysomething writer of King's Speech.

Distributor Fox Searchlight
Cast John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
Director Ben Lewin
No MPAA rating, 94 minutes

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