In The Surrogate, a 38-year-year-old man named Mark O’Brien hires a woman to relieve him of his virginity. But wait, there’s more: Because of childhood polio, the man can’t move his body below his neck, and when he isn’t spending hours in the iron lung that helps him breathe, he’s lying flat on a gurney, cared for by a rotation of attendants. Also there’s this: The woman he hires isn’t a prostitute but a surrogate partner, trained as a sex therapist and experienced at working with disabled clients. The real O’Brien, a poet and journalist, wrote eloquently about his life, including the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” published in 1990; he died in 1999 at the age of 49. The movie O’Brien is played by Winter’s Bone’s wonderful John Hawkes; Helen Hunt is frequently, frankly, and rather elegantly naked as Cheryl, the therapist who teaches him How To. O’Brien was a devout Roman Catholic, and William H. Macy has a great turn as a priest who becomes the poet’s great friend as well as confessor. (With more priests like Macy, there might be a boom in church going.)
Hawkes’s performance is a tour de force, one of those My Left Foot-y transformations that makes audiences farklempt with admiration and generates awards talk. (Compare art to reality — and be amazed — by seeing and hearing the real O’Brien in Jessica Wu’s excellent 1996 documentary, Breathing Lessons.) But who knew a movie made out of such singular material could be such an uplifting but unsentimental, funny, and uncoyly sexual crowd pleaser? Even allowing for Sundance Altitude Fever — the kind of festival-bubble mind set that gets audiences leaping to their feet in Standing Ovation formation — there’s something bracingly frank and disarming about The Surrogate that will work down at sea level, too. It shouldn’t matter whether veteran 65-year-old writer-director Ben Lewin has had first-hand experience with polio or not. But it so happens he does — he, too, was stricken as a child. And clearly that familiarity adds to the authority with which, using O’Brien’s own words (including some of his poems), Lewin has made a movie of such sharp sweetness — and sexual maturity.