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SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘The Surrogate’ Turns Sex Therapy Into a Bittersweet Showcase for Helen Hunt and John Hawkes

SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'The Surrogate' Turns Sex Therapy Into a Bittersweet Showcase for Helen Hunt and John Hawkes

“I’m always in somebody’s way,” says Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), the Berkeley writer stuck in an iron lung and desperate to find love in “The Surrogate.” His desire to improve his experience by seeking a sexual encounter forms the bulk of this undeniably sweet, affecting movie as it explores the impact of physical bonds on personal contentment through O’Brien’s heartbreaking commitment to a difficult task. Less dreary than uplifting, “The Surrogate” succeeds as a light romance with heavy material.

In a departure from the gruff tough guys he recently played in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Winter’s Bone,” Hawkes delivers an energetic performance that requires him to do little more than speak and stare while everyone around him looms above. These include his committed caretaker (Moon Bloodgood) and a compassionate priest (William H. Macy), whose willingness to endorse O’Brien’s decision to hire a sex surrogate happens a tad too quickly. (As a colleague whispered to me during the screening, “Only in Berkeley.”)

Following the suggestion of a therapist after an earlier caretaker breaks his heart, O’Brien hires the easygoing surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) for a series of six sessions to help him achieve sexual satisfaction. In other words, she has sex with him, but also evaluates his specific physical hangups to unearth the proper means of achieving the goal without shortchanging it.

Baring all and radiating an affability that defines the movie’s tone, Hunt delivers her finest performance since “As Good As It Gets,” but “The Surrogate” can’t match her investment in the role. The screenplay, by writer-director Ben Lewin, falls into the trappings of valorizing its handicapped protagonist; O’Brien has no visible faults aside from his persistent naivete.

This may have something to do with the source material, an article that O’Brien himself wrote based on his surrogate experience. (It’s also worth noting that this is not the first time O’Brien’s life has been brought to the screen; Jessica Yu’s O’Brien documentary, “Breathing Lessons,” won an Oscar.) The movie expects us to believe that Cheryl, who spends her off-hours in an ordinary domestic existence, falls in love with O’Brien over the course of their intimate sessions; while their scenes together are both touching and sad, there’s not enough there to make this burgeoning attraction a credible development.

The same issue applies to O’Brien’s various attempts at courtship. In one case, you want to believe he knows better, and in another, there’s simply not enough information to decide. “The Surrogate” devotes too much attention to O’Brien’s sexual training and not enough to its application, resulting in the distinct sense that the narrative has skipped a crucial step.

O’Brien, however, maintains a persistently endearing presence through his lyrical voiceover and sly relationship with the world of characters he depends on. After an initial encounter with Cheryl that culminates in premature ejaculation, O’Brien remarks that he feels “cleansed and victorious,” a witty throwaway line that functions as a coping mechanism. The last notable movie to portray a character in such a restrictive state, Julian Schabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” lingered its character’s consistent sadness; O’Brien, by comparison, constantly battles to maintain an upbeat mood. His optimism keeps him alive even more than the iron lung.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fox Searchlight spent $6 million for “The Surrogate” at Sundance, a surprisingly high amount for such a small-scale film. While it’s likely to gain awards-season traction for Hunt and Hawkes, its theatrical prospects are fairly modest — especially if the film’s abundant Hunt nudity and sexual situations give it an NC-17 rating.

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