Sundance Journal: ‘The Surrogate’

If there was a better acted movie at Sundance this year, I didn’t see it. John Hawkes’ role in ‘The Surrogate’ should steamroll the Oscars next year, and I say that full well knowing that I haven’t seen any 2012 movies yet.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) had Polio as a child and now lives his live in an iron lung. He can travel outside for a few hours at a time, but for the most part, he has to be confined to the gigantic metal device that helps him breathe.

Mark is a literary genius. He’s a poet. He taps out his poetry on a computer that he has to hit with a stick he holds in his mouth. Life hasn’t been kind to Mark, but somehow he’s always able to look on the bright side.

He has one wish, though. He’d like to have sex. He feels like he’s experienced most of what life has to offer except for being with a woman. With the reluctant blessing of his priest (William H. Macy), Mark embarks on a quest to fulfill his last wish. He comes into contact with a sex therapist played by Helen Hunt who helps him achieve his wish.

There’s something so beautiful and genuine about Hawkes’ acting here. If I’d never seen him in anything else, I would’ve sworn he actually had Polio. He looks just as emaciated as Christian Bale did in ‘The Machinist’.

The great thing about ‘The Surrogate’, besides the stellar acting from Hawkes and Hunt, is that its depiction of intercourse and the foreplay that goes along with it is really quite sweet. There’s nothing here to spice up the proceedings. It’s a very honest, subtle depiction of what it takes to have sex for the first time. It’s a very straightforward take on what it would be like for a man such as this to achieve the act of making love.

I’m sure that ‘The Surrogate’ will come out sometime this year, and you should all keep an eye out for it. It’s such a delightfully acted movie that there’s no way it won’t be recognized come award time next year.

Rating: ★★★★½


  1. JM

    Is it disrespectful to review a movie this highly, without a single mention of the writer-director’s name?

    I hear that Ben Lewin wrote a pretty clever screenplay.

    Did you see Jessica Yu’s documentary ‘Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien’?

    It won an Academy Award in 1997 for best Documentary Short Subject.

    Mark O’Brien died on July 4, 1999, from post-polio syndrome.

    Would you say that this film honors him well?

    Do you prophesies that this movie will be getting a huge marketing boost via Fox News, re: sex therapy vs prostitution?

    • Aaron Peck

      Disrespectful? No I don’t think so.

      These posts aren’t meant to be full reviews anyway. Those will come once the movies are released. Like I mentioned in my first couple Sundance posts these are just knee-jerk reaction pieces. Stuff to watch out for, and stuff you can skip.

      If it had been a full review I certainly would’ve mentioned Mr. Lewin’s name. Even though Hawkes is the real reason why this movie is so good. Anyone else and I don’t think it’s nearly as good.

      I don’t know the story behind Mr. O’Brien but it’s a tender movie, and doesn’t degrade him at all. I think it represents him well.

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