[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of Sundance Film Festival 2012. It has been reposted to coincide with its theatrical release. The film's title has since been changed from The Surrogate to The Sessions. No other changes beyond the post and header title have been made.]
The Surrogate is a story about a poet paralyzed by polio. He is nearly forty years old and has never touched a woman. When he hears about the existence of a sex therapist, who walks the handicapped through intercourse, he signs himself up but finds there is emotional baggage that accompanies his cash payments.
With a synopsis like that, you can't blame me for thinking I was walking into a comedy. After all, the only thing funnier than an awkward virgin on screen is an awkward virgin that's forty years old. Instead, The Surrogate approaches this moving story with a gentleness and humor that is respectful to Mark O'Brien's story while delivering plenty of laughs. In a utopia, this would be the sort of production Lifetime Network would churn out.
The Surrogate (The Sessions)
As Tropic Thunder poked fun at, there is no easier way to gain recognition as an actor than to play a character with a disability. Immediately, we give these characters our heart: pity, fear, and gratitude pour out of us as we look at these characters and think, "Thank God, that's not me!" The actor only needs to not screw up, as most of the work is already done.
I admit this is an awfully reductive and cynical way to look at film's like My Left Foot and I Am Sam, but I also recognize there is nothing wrong with these films. I want to see stories that say something about the human condition while presenting an original perspective. In The Surrogate, that perspective comes from the narrative of Mark O'Brien, a whip-smart poet and journalist with a mind as active as his body is not. He goes to sleep every night as an iron lung pushes 16 pounds of pressure onto his skinny shape.
The film opens with archive footage of Brien's college graduation in the '70s. The film could easily open with an intro showing Brien's childhood spent walking or narration explaining his struggles, but this brief archive clip speaks volumes and makes us immediately understand what type of person he is. He's the type of person who wants to be a part of society, while knowing fully well he can never be recognized as normal. He graduates like the rest of the class, but he does so horizontally from a gurney.
The Surrogate is driven primarily by John Hawkes' performances to the point that a script for the stage wouldn't need much adjustments. We spend the majority of the time with Brien talking to his cat at night, visiting his neighborhood priest (William H. Macy) for guidance, and experiencing a sexual awakening through sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Brien is now near forty and wants some change in his life, so he contacts Cheryl. As a sexual surrogate, Cheryl explains and has intercourse with Brien. It's a bizarre job, and the film doesn't shy away from showing the repercussions this has on her private life. There is an ease and heart to Hunt that makes her good intentions always clear.
Brien lives in his head, through necessity, but displays so much life and warmth in in his daily interactions. Hawkes lights up the theater every time he is on screen; it's a career-defining performance lifted to greater heights through the subtle comedy with Macy and emotional moments with Hunt. The script balances Brien's interactions with these characters perfectly and it ends right where it should -- something that rarely happens these days.
Unlike similar films about a teaching and helping an impaired student, The Surrogate never lays on the cheese or drama. It's clear that Brien is suffering over his sexual anxiety and heartbreak, but it's all in Hawkes' subtle, Oscar-worthy performance. He speaks beautiful words with a voice that sounds like Bukowski without the edge -- the sound lulls me to sleep, while the intricate wordplay keeps me wide awake. I've rarely seen a script and actor form such a tight bond to deliver a performance as powerful as this one.
The pitfalls of its subject matter are dodged through The Surrogate's delicate, lighthearted tone. Brien is a man his friends love to spend time with. By the film's end, you felt like you were right by his side. There is no overwrought freak-out scene, no unnecessary archive news footage to set the tone of the era, or other cliches that have plagued similar dramas. This is the film I wanted The King's Speech to be. It's a one-of-a-kind biopic that charms, enlightens, and uplifts without any cheap tricks or bombast. You can be sure that you'll hear more about The Surrogate when the 2013 Oscars rear their head.