One of the most notable and extraordinary stories depicted this year at Sundance was that of a little known writer from Berkeley, who managed to outdo the inhibitions of his existence to explore the realms of love and, most importantly, get laid. The feature film, The Surrogate, which premiered Monday at the festival and was almost instantly acquired by Fox Searchlight the next day, chronicles the true story of Marc O'Brien, a journalist living in the Bay on a quest to lose his virginity at the age of 38. O'Brien, who was diagnosed with polio in his youth, spent most of his life running on an iron lung, exploring and traversing the world horizontally. Unfortunately, because of his physiological setback, he couldn't even see his own penis, let alone attend to its needs.
I knew this film was going to be good because 1) it was about a bizarre sexual quandary; 2) it really happened; and 3) it starred John Hawkes, who is one of the best, if not the best, actors in Hollywood right now. I just wasn't aware of how good it would be.
To summarize the tale, Hawkes' character could only spend four hours a day disconnected from his life-supporting machine. Consequently, he handled the most basic functions (writing, eating, etc.) with his mouth. He couldn't sit up; had caregivers to bathe and transport him; and got erections uncontrollably, much to his chagrin. After discussing matters with the fellow disabled, and additionally requesting the blessing of his slightly-deviant priest and confidant, Father Brendan (played by the perpetually-quirky, William H. Macy), O'Brien opted to hire what is known as a "sex surrogate" (Helen Hunt is back!). His surrogate signed up for six sessions, beginning with "body awareness exercises" and onto the full menu of sexual favors culminating, finally, with a one-minute shag. If you're thinking surrogate is a euphemism for prostitute, we all were, but the clarification was quickly made otherwise. O'Brien's surrogate, by contrast, led him on a journey to comprehend his body and hers, comfortably allowing him to discover the female genitalia, and teaching him tricks of the trade so he would be confident moving forward.
Why was this film so good? Allow me to enamor on the ways. Hawkes flawlessly embodied both the physical impediments O'Brien faced, as well as the deeply embedded internal conflicts. What was most heartbreaking about O'Brien was that he fell for women as often as he prematurely ejaculated, and while he found the inherency to bring his surrogate to orgasm, the struggle to attain a real relationship would prove his greatest feat of all. As director, Ben Lewin, commented, himself a polio survivor, O'Brien lived in an area where love was abound -- the most flowery town in Northern Cali -- and such a setting had significant impact on his desire to achieve independence and romance. Nevertheless, he did, and his wife was present at the screening.
The intriguing relationship between Hawkes and Hunt's characters was closely rivaled by that of the Hawkes-Macy duo. Father Brendan proved a friend and pseudo-counselor to O'Brien, tirelessly listening to his sexual diatribes, and even dropping by one evening to hash it out over a beer. For Macy, it was the exploration of human disability, a subject he believes we typically avoid, and additionally the opportunity to encourage broader construction of sexual consciousness, which convinced him to take on the role.
Macy explained, "We're really fucked up in this country about sex, and I love that this deals with it in such a non-emotional, wholesome manner... A life lived without sex and romance is only a partial life."
In the end, of course, it was Hawkes that stole my heart. To be O'Brien, the indie linchpin performed in a box; curved his body over a ball to personify impairment; and interpreted the dilemma of a man blind to his corporal necessities. Despite the daunting character, Hawkes managed to evoke not pity, but self-awareness. Though humor was prevalent throughout, we cried because we wished for the resilience of O'Brien, and the ability to feel so effervescently. Hawkes makes every cinematic experience magical, and while he adamantly intends to remain on the peripheral, he couldn't be more triumphant as an actor. In fact, it's clear he despises the reference as a "poor man's Sean Penn," yet proudly describes his friends as those without "any money at all," regular people in Hollywood. Both he and Macy are careful to pay their respects to an industry that has acknowledged and provided them with opportunities, but admittedly their admiration is in a creative arena like Sundance, where truth and art meet in consensual consummation.
Hawkes observes, "The art that changes the world is where a person tells the story they want to tell because they'll die if they don't tell it that way... The art that changes the world is a singular vision."