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Quint sees the first sure-fire awards contender at Sundance, The Surrogate starring John Hawkes, William H. Macy and Helen Hunt!

Published at: Jan. 25, 2012, 2:41 a.m. CST by quint

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. On the surface The Surrogate sounds like a fake trailer you’d see playing before a movie like Tropic Thunder: A man who was crippled by polio as a child and requires an iron lung to breathe at night decides it’s time to lose his virginity and hires a sex surrogate to do the deed.

The fact that the movie manages to stop that concept from getting unwanted laughs from the audience just shows how great the writing and directing is from Ben Lewin and the acting is from all involved.

I didn’t realize this was based on a real person until just before the credits rolled at the very end of the movie. John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, the man disabled by polio, a journalist, poet and incredibly charismatic smart-ass.

There was a short documentary on O’Brien that won an Oscar (click here to view it, but be warned a lot of the content is repeated in the film) and it’s clear that Lewin got a lot of help from O’Brien’s writing in developing his voice for the screen. That’s not a knock at all. The character’s voice is consistent from beginning to end, so it’s not like Lewin just pulled all his dialogue from O’Brien’s recorded material, I’m just saying after seeing the doc they really seemed to go out of their way to capture O’Brien’s personality in exacting detail. That was another surprising layer of detail that impressed me well after I thought the flick was done doing so.

Hawkes knocks it out the park, as per usual, but there’s something particularly special about his performance here. He has the part of a lifetime portraying O’Brien, who is sharp as hell, witty, sad, hilarious, lonely and wrestling with some heavy issues involving his place in the world, what his future holds and what his relationship with God is.

The film sounds heavy and to a degree it is, but there’s so much character humor and heart wrapped up in there that it never gets too dark and depressing.

Hawkes is just so damn good in this movie. Seeing the façade of confidence and humor giving way to shame and nervousness when he begins his sexual therapy is astounding. He can shift the whole tone of the scene with the look in his eyes. Since he’s laid up the entire movie his eyes become crucial to making the movie work and the man’s a master at using subtle tics and shifts to convey emotion.

 

 

As much as people are talking about Hawkes being nominated this time next year, I hope they don’t overlook Helen Hunt who turns in a sweet, brave performance as Cheryl, the sex surrogate. Her character is as much a therapist as she is a teacher and willing sexual partner. She’s there to bring O’Brien out of his shell, build up his confidence and let him essentially move past this obsession, but is reluctant to get too close. She has rules on how many sessions they can have, on how much she’ll discuss about her private life, etc. A lot of people will focus on her nudity in the movie, which is an aspect to the bravery of her performance, but it’s really how subtly her feelings for O’Brien grow over the course of the movie that show the depth of the character.

It’s a great, demanding performance and Hunt tackles it with an uninhibited energy that really impressed me.

Then there’s William H. Macy as Father Brendan, a Catholic priest who O’Brien requests advice from. Their relationship quickly develops as a true friendship as O’Brien tries to get a feel on whether or not his desire to know the feel of a woman this late in life will piss God off. Macy’s so good at playing that nice guy put in an awkward situation and that relationship is yet another aspect of this movie that that just plain works.

 

 

Hell, Moon Bloodgood is in this movie as one of O’Brien’s caretakers and she’s great! That’s how good this movie is. I never thought I’d compliment Moon Bloodgood on a performance, but here I am saying she’s incredibly sweet and funny in this flick.

I love it when dramas can also almost feel like a serious comedy. Drama and comedy aren’t too far removed from each other to start with, but it’s rare you get a movie that’s strong in both. When you do you get classics, movies people will want to watch for years.

Fox Searchlight picked this movie up for the most money spent on any single title so far at Sundance and we all know they have awards on their minds. No way did they pick this up because they think it’s going to do Little Miss Sunshine indie-breakout business. So, if they put their weight behind an awards push I can guarantee here and now that you’re going to see picture, actor, supporting actor and supporting actress noms for this one next year.

Time to prepare for another day hunting down movies in the snow! Still owe reviews on Red Lights, Save the Date and Safety Not Guaranteed, which I’ll try to knock out tomorrow. Stay tuned!

-Eric Vespe
”Quint”
quint@aintitcool.com
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