'Surrogate' scores two standing ovations
Published: January 23, 2012 02:42PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 02:42PM
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Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star in "The Sessions," originally titled "The Surrogate," which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Standing ovations are fairly rare at the Sundance Film Festival. Two after the same screening is a miracle.

That's what happened at Monday's debut screening of “The Surrogate” at the Eccles Theatre.

The audience rose to its feet for a sustained ovation for writer-director Ben Lewin, and again when he introduced the film's leading actor, John Hawkes.

In the film, Hawkes plays the journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio as a child and spent most of his life in an iron lung. The movie employs a blend of light comedy and touching drama to depict how O'Brien, in the course of researching an article about the sex lives of the disabled, worked with a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity.

Hawkes researched the role by watching Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary short about O'Brien, “Breathing Lessons,” and by practicing with the mouth stick – which was how O'Brien typed, dialed the phone and turned pages in books.

“I actually got pretty good,” Hawkes told the audience. He also laid on a soccer-sized foam ball, dubbed the “torture ball,” to approximate the curvature of O'Brien's spine.

The Australian Lewin, who at 65 may be the oldest director to make a Sundance competition film, said, “I think John took it really personally, and he really wanted to do it for Mark.”

Hunt's research included meeting the woman she was playing, sexologist Cheryl Cohen Greene – and having Greene rub Hunt's boyfriend's feet. (Both Greene and Susan Fernbach, O'Brien's widow, were consultants on the film and in attendance at the Eccles Monday.)

Hunt showed some nervousness when the audience's questions turned to the subject of her body – which is seen in full-frontal glory in the film.

“I just want to make sure I'm still dressed,” said Hunt, in sweater and leggings, from the Eccles stage.

The Oscar winner admitted to some trepidation about baring all for the camera.

“With a movie this size, if they waited for me to get comfortable taking my clothes off, there wouldn't be a movie,” she said. “I decided to cling onto my desire not to wreck the movie.”

-- Sean P. Means