Sundance review: "The Surrogate"
Published: January 23, 2012 07:52PM
Updated: January 24, 2012 01:45PM
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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

“The Surrogate”

U.S. Dramatic

*** ½ (three and a half stars)

Powerful performances, sly humor, gentle sexiness and heartfelt emotion combine in this story, based on the life of journalist/poet Mark O'Brien – who contracted polio as a child and lived most of his life in an iron lung. In Berkeley in 1988, O'Brien (played by John Hawkes) draws an assignment to write about the sex lives of the disabled. While doing interviews, O'Brien decides he should, at 38, finally lose his virginity. After talking it over with his priest (William H. Macy) and a sex therapist, O'Brien enlists a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who gently guides him through his first sexual experiences. Writer-director Ben Lewin draws from O'Brien's writings to capture the whimsy and deep thinking of a man who “lives in my own head” because of a failing body. Hunt brings a no-nonsense attitude (and some full-frontal nudity) to the role of the sex surrogate. But it's Hawkes' sharp performance, which nails both the physicality of O'Brien's disability and the poetic soul in his eyes, that will have Hollywood buyers plotting his 2013 Oscar campaign.

-- Sean P. Means

“The Surrogate” screens again: