Singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura stars in “Surrogate Valentine” as a thinly veiled version of himself, a struggling West Coast musician with a wry deadpan humour and a gentle spirit. His open face suggests an innate patience with the fools that surround him as he soldiers thanklessly through underpaid gigs, perfecting his genuine brand of shadow-drenched shoegaze from city to city. His work may make ends meet, but he continues to haggle with distributors who won’t release his material in indie record stores.
With the well about to run dry, Nakamura finds a tidy supplement when he is tasked with teaching a TV star how to play guitar for an independent picture. The actor, Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops), is anything but a quick study. Turner dithers, cracking inappropriate jokes and hitting up his teacher for details about his love life, hiding behind a superficial egocentricism and a thin pair of Tom Cruise shades. Despite a life spent on the road, Nakamura is noticeably introverted until his give-and-take with Turner leads him to open up to Rachel, a former high-school flame who may be the only one who comprehends his ennui. Their relationship seems rooted in memories of a past of pregnant pauses, of missed opportunities.
Directed by Dave Boyle, SXSW favorite “Surrogate Valentine” is almost entirely reliant on the appeal of non-professional Nakamura. Unconventionally handsome, Nakamura has the face of Roy Orbison and the smile of Johnny Cash, someone who invites a warm level of affection but fends off attention with extreme disinterest. His dalliance with an overly affectionate fan club member is marked by silences only she seems desperate to fill. When she leans over to kiss him the morning after, he lies in bed wrapped underneath a blanket, emotionally mummified.
Boyle’s crisp black-and-white photography manages to emphasize the barren geography of Nakamura’s world, inner-city clutter juxtaposed with wide open Pacific Northwest skylines. Oddly enough, the most visually comfortable relationship in the film, all cramped cars and studios, is between Nakamura and the intolerable Turner, who somehow wins the musician’s trust through sheer force of will. Turner is almost a parody of a wannabe superstar, an alpha male jabberjaw with an inflated sense of his own celebrity. It stings when Turner tells a fan he’s learning with a “washed-up” musician while Nakamura haggles over merchandise mere feet away. Turner’s guitar aptitude is weak, but his bond with Nakamura is later enhanced, with the two of them dropping instruments to share secrets, particularly as Turner’s carefully cultivated ladies’ man image crumbles.
Brisk and punchy, “Surrogate Valentine” barely clocks in at a runtime of seventy five minutes, long enough to see Turner completely fail to convince in what we’re to assume is an entirely unconvincing low-budget romantic indie. So desperate to take on a “serious acting assignment,” Turner’s job evolves from creating a character to mimicking Nakamura, which has a positive effect on the wrong person. For Nakamura, a man eternally on the road, it takes the satellite acquaintances of a singer-songwriter for him to find his voice. [A-]