Sundance 2012: ‘The Surrogate’ a film about sex for romantics

The Surrogate

Directed by Ben Lewin

Screenplay by Ben Lewin

2012, USA

John Hawkes (of Deadwood and from last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene) portrays Mark O’Brien, a real life poet and advocate for the physically disabled who decides at age 38 to lose his virginity. O’Brien spends his life in an iron lung, paralyzed from the neck down. The catalyst for The Surrogate is that while researching a book on sex in the disabled community, he discovers sex surrogacy- a step that people who are in some way impaired can take to fulfill their needs. Mark comes to feel as though sex surrogacy is his only recourse to know pleasure as he has fallen in love before but sadly never with anyone who wanted to reciprocate sexually. The subject matter alone might be enough to scare off those who would hate this movie. If you’ve made it past “poet”, “paralyzed” and “sex surrogate” without cringing then you’ll probably find yourself on board for where the film takes you.

The sex becomes almost background noise to the insecurities and exaltations that whirl through Mark’s mind during his time with surrogate Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt), which we hear through short passages of his poetry, inner monologues and decompressing talks with his priest. It’s hard for him not to romanticize sex. He is a true virgin, sensitive to the slightest touch (he cannot walk or move but can become aroused) and with no control. Losing his virginity is very important to him. He doesn’t want his first sexual experiences to be over and done with as soon as possible. In not knowing when or if he may have sex again, the importance of these intimate moments do mean the world to him. John Hawkes’ performance is one of the primary reasons to see The Surrogate. His voice truly comes across as naturally weak from being reliant on machines to breath. He apparently took great pains to jut out his rib cage during the shoot (a doctor ordered him to stop when it was found that his internal organs had started to shift) in order to emulate the curvature of O’Brien’s deformed spine. His facial expressions are understated yet intricate and shot as if they are asides to us during his experiences. Hawkes seems to respect O’Brien as a person who deals with his bleak circumstances with humor, not wanting to be seen as a charity case but someone who strives to derive as much significance from all of his interactions as he can.

Like Steve McQueen’s Shame, it is strange and wonderful to see a male body so vulnerable on screen. Powerlessness and sexual failure does unmake a man. Far from being distressing here, it works to expand and more completely define masculinity. Boldly depicted too is the fact that it is the woman who is the acting on the man, giving and in charge of everything she does with her body. She is neither passive participant or seen as a pariah for sex being a part of her career. Yes, she is being paid but this is her chosen profession and deals chiefly in being concerned about the mental well being of her customers. This is a complete reversal of Shame in that Mark’s emotional life improves because of sex. It doesn’t make him hollow but even more introspective about what really matters to him and others.

Ben Lewin, the director and writer of the story is himself partially disabled and treats the subject tactfully but with an edge to the humorous moments that inevitably arise from a very intelligent virgin awakening sexually. Mark O’Brien feels like a person you shouldn’t feel sorry for and that he wouldn’t want you to. It seems though, he would want you to listen intently and from his words be inspired to conjure your own so that you don’t take your gifts and luck for granted.

Note: O’Brien was also the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary short of 1997, Breathing Lessons, which can be found in full here:

– Lane Scarberry

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