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One of the standout debuts of 2020 was Jeremy Hersh’s The Surrogate, a superbly acted ethical drama that digs deep into complex interpersonal, psychological, moral and legal questions arising from a third-party reproduction arrangement that takes unforeseen turns. Close friendship added further complications to the childbirth pact in that case, whereas in Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together, the pregnancy agreement is purely transactional. The featherweight comedy is also far more generic, nudging around the shifting boundaries between Ed Helms’ father-to-be and Patti Harrison’s paid surrogate without ever really raising the emotional stakes.
Beckwith returns to Sundance six years after her first film, Stockholm, Pennsylvania. In that grim drama about the reconciliation of a childhood abduction victim with her parents, the affecting performances of Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon somewhat compensated for a screenplay that skimmed the surface rather than probing the turbulent depths of a fraught scenario. The writer-director’s second feature attempts a lighter vein with another unsatisfying script that offers a wishy-washy portrait of platonic love with too few fresh observations.
RELEASE DATE Apr 23, 2021
The most remarkable thing about Together Together is the recruitment in nothing roles of talent whose credentials should be steering them toward material with more spark — among them Julio Torres from Los Espookys, Anna Konkle from Pen15, Sufe Bradshaw from Veep, the brilliant Tig Notaro and comedy royalty Nora Dunn and Fred Melamed. The squandering of assets here is considerable. Bleecker Street’s best hope of mustering an audience lies in fans of The Office and the Hangover movies eager to see Helms in a lead role, though it’s gifted trans comedian Harrison (from Hulu’s Shrill) who gives the movie its minimal edge, even if she deserves a more distinctive vehicle.
Helms plays Matt, who like at least half the 40-ish movie guys looking to move his life forward is an app designer, this time in San Francisco. After an opening interview that sets the prevailing strained comedy-of-awkwardness tone, Matt engages the services of Harrison’s first-time gestational surrogate Anna, who like most rudderless 20-something women in movies, works in a coffee shop alongside a deadpanning queer fellow barista (Torres).
Anna has been floundering since getting pregnant in high school and giving up her child for adoption, becoming estranged from her family and skipping college, all of which immediately makes her the more intriguing character. Matt is just, well, ordinary, and Helms is so set on making “nice” his predominant characteristic that he’s also dull. He’s been in a dry spell since a failed eight-year relationship and seems to think a baby is the answer to his limbo, for reasons he never articulates.
Divided into three trimesters, the plot initially is driven by Anna trying to keep the relationship strictly business while Matt insists on getting increasingly involved in her life, becoming controlling about her nutrition, her sex life and even trying to force clogs on her as pregnancy-friendly footwear.
Only in the second trimester does Anna begin to warm to fussbudget Matt, in a sweet scene where they choose a paint shade for the nursery in his home. Beckwith isn’t content just to have us observe that shift, however, since she then has Anna discuss it in the surrogates’ group she attends. Matt goes to his own group for first-time parents, and the two of them have joint sessions with a therapist (Notaro). They also treat their acerbic ultrasound technician (Bradshaw) as referee of their every dispute. “I can’t tell if she’s really rude or amazing,” Anna says of the sublime Bradshaw’s character in one of the script’s droller lines.
Add in the birthing classes conducted by Konkle’s earth mother Shayleen (“I love the miracle of birth and it is truly a pleasure to be on this journey with you”) and the movie seriously overloads on talky scenes about the surrogacy experience without taking time to develop actual chemistry between its protagonists. Differences of opinion about whether they should or shouldn’t know the baby’s sex dissolve into a cutesy back-and-forth about finding a gender-neutral way to refer to it, so they settle on “lamp.” That kind of soft humor barely lands, especially since they more or less forget about it until they’re in the delivery room.
There’s no doubt a smart comedy to be written about the potentially tangled pathways of the relationship between prospective parents and surrogates (another 2020 indie, Milkwater, while a mixed bag, brought a little more bite to it), and Together Together suggests that potential in some of the more intimate observations of Anna. Watching Harrison’s face as guests crowd around Matt unwrapping gifts at the baby shower and Anna feels her role being marginalized is quite affecting. Even more so is the sharp decision by Beckwith to hold the camera on her face for the entire duration of the actual birth.
In the end though, this is a bland effort, with its tinkly piano music and flat visuals, failing to make anything of the San Francisco setting aside from the occasional shot of a hilly street or Castro corner. It’s pleasant enough, but lacks the vitality to be more than mildly funny as comedy as well as the insight to build emotional heft as drama. It is, however, an excellent incentive to check out The Surrogate if you haven’t seen it.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Wild Idea, Haven Entertainment
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Cast: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Anna Konkle, Timm Sharp, Evan Jonigkeit, Rosalind Chao, Sufe Bradshaw, Greta Titelman, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed
Director-screenwriter: Nikole Beckwith
Producers: Anthony Brandonisio, Tim Headington, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive producers: Lia Buman, Anita Gou, Rebecca Cammarata, Bill Benenson, Toby Louie, Kevin Mann, Chris Boyd, Nikole Beckwith, Daniel Crown
Director of photography: Frank Barrera
Production designer: Ashley Fenton
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Music: Alex Somers
Editor: Annette Davey
Casting: Richard Hicks, Leslie Wasserman
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