No other film this year pushes as many Academy buttons as Ben Lewin's adaptation of the true story of the Dorchester-born poet and writer Mark O'Brien, a paralyzed polio survivor who hired a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. It's got the torturous depiction of a person with disabilities, à la Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. It's got a bittersweet romance, a Rocky-like defiance of the odds, and an Oscar-winning actress in the nude. There's a snappy script, black humor, an elfin priest, a nice cat, and best of all, it's a damn good movie.
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Okay, minus a few lapses into sentimentality. But that can only be expected in a story that overflows with both pathos and joie de vivre. And given the film's ironic take on Catholic guilt and the role of God in a world of pain and evil, a bit of squishiness is a relief.
The film takes on the tough luck of the human condition with its opening scene as O'Brien (John Hawkes) copes with an itchy nose he can't scratch. He can't reach other itches either, and if he could, he'd suffer the sexual shame of someone who keeps a holy card taped to his iron lung. But some needs defy all constraints, physical and spiritual. So O'Brien asks his confessor, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), if he can employ the services of a professional. Reluctantly, Father Brendan says he thinks, in O'Brien's case, Jesus would give him a free pass.
So begin the sessions between O'Brien and Salem native Cheryl Cohen (Helen Hunt), who if not for her profession would seem an average suburban housewife. Intercut with these encounters are other sessions: between O'Brien and Father Brendan, and between Cheryl and her tape recorder, each situation providing a different point of view on the unusual relationship, and achieving a balance between the detached and analytical and the intimate and intense. This and the other low-key tactics of Lewin's unemphatic style, along with the cast's subtly powerful performances, render a story that could easily have been smarmy and exploitative into a powerful expression of our common needs, fears, and consolations.
THE SURROGATE SPEAKS :: Cheryl Cohen Greene, whose sessions with Mark O'Brien inspired the film, talks about sex, intimacy, and how Helen Hunt nailed her Boston accent at thePhoenix.com/outsidetheframe.