The past two years, John Hawkes has given great performances in Sundance movies Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, only to watch his ingenue female co-stars (Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen) get all the attention. That changed at about 2pm this afternoon as the crowd rose to not one, but two prolonged standing ovations for The Surrogate, in which John Hawkes plays writer and poet Mark O’Brien, a man severely disabled by polio who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to take his virginity. One ovation was for the film, the other for Hawkes. Almost simultaneously, the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick and Variety’s Peter Debruge started the Oscar talk. Said Debrudge: “Standing ovation after THE SURROGATE premiere at #Sundance. If it were running in this year’s Oscar race, THE ARTIST would be toast.”
It is important to remember that hyperbole spreads rapidly in the bubble of a film festival, but The Surrogate is quite wonderful and had this writer, along with much of the audience, both laughing and in tears. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, who had polio himself but has use of his upper body and some use of his lower limbs, the poignant comedy is based on O’Brien’s true story of seeing a sex therapist while mostly being confined to an iron lung. Hawkes used Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning documentary about O’Brien, Breathing Lessons, to research the role, which required him to spend the entire movie lying down, unable to move anything but his head, and able to write or dial the phone only by using a “mouth stick.” He starts talking about sex with his priest (the great William H. Macy) before finding out about sex surrogates while researching an article about sex and the disabled. Hunt, in a role that will surely be seen as a welcome comeback, spend most of the movie in glorious full frontal, and she looks amazing. “I’m just checking to make sure I’m still dressed,” she joked during the Q&A. Before the screening, Sundance programming director John Cooper told the audience that, since he’s introducing films that are in competition, he’s not supposed to talk about “how much a film moves you or how it changes your perspective” or how great the acting ensemble is, but that he was basically saying just that about The Surrogate. By the time the screening was over, we all knew what he meant.