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Sundance Review Round-Up: Fox Searchlight Plans Oscar Run for 'The Surrogate'

Photo of Anne Thompson and Maggie Lange By Anne Thompson and Maggie Lange | Thompson on Hollywood January 24, 2012 at 2:55PM

Fox Searchlight immediately snapped up "The Surrogate" for $6 million, the biggest acquisition at Sundance so far this year, outmaneuvering at least three other potential buyers for the picture.
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Helen Hunt and John Hawkes Star in "The Sessions"
Fox Searchlight Helen Hunt and John Hawkes Star in "The Sessions"

Fox Searchlight immediately snapped up "The Surrogate" for $6 million, the biggest acquisition at Sundance so far this year, outmaneuvering  at least three other potential buyers for the picture.  

Searchlight holds high Oscar hopes for film, which stars John Hawkes as journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, who is afflicted with polio. (Think "My Left Foot.") Although he lived much of his life in an iron lung, he seeks to lose his virginity and hires a sex surrogate.  The film draws much of its plot, story, and character from O'Brien's writing.

Critics praise the film as accessible, enjoyable, and light-hearted, and single out Hawkes as the immobile writer; his performance earned a standing ovation at the Sundance screening.  Ben Lewin directed the film, which also stars Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.

Producer Judi Levine says: “We look forward to working with Searchlight to broaden the conversation of topics that were once considered taboo and that represent what's going on in society in a much more open way." Fox Searchlight plans to release the film later in 2012, as they did with "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Little Miss Sunshine." (Review round up below).

The Guardian, Jeremy Kay

On paper it sounds like the kind of relentlessly miserable tale that Sundance occasionally chooses to inflict upon us. But The Surrogate couldn't be further from grim. Based on the autobiographical writings of journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, it celebrates life and wanting to be alive. At age 38 O'Brien – curious, wickedly funny and utterly lacking in self-pity – contacts a professional surrogate with the help of a friend or two and the blessing of his priest (William H Macy). A touching friendship ensues with the woman, played with dignity and intelligence by Helen Hunt. O'Brien is used to living inside his head and so his odyssey, while awkward at times, is enthralling as he learns to accept his body.

Variety, Peter Debruge

By avoiding the impulse to explain everything up front, Lewin foregrounds Mark's sense of humor, allowing his personality to show through his potentially depressing circumstances. From the beginning, he exhibits a frisky interest in sexuality, which feels unusual not because of his disability, but because so few films have been willing to deal with the subject as a source of anything other than shame or stimulation… But performances are paramount in a film like this, and Hawkes works some kind of miracle despite the self-evident physical limitations of the role.

New York Magazine, Jada Yuan
 

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.
 

The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy

Cheerful, in fact, is the operative word here, along with an omnipresent feeling of goodwill. There are no naysayers, no chastisers, no disapproving ninnies who think Mark ought to behave himself. Love and understanding are at the core of virtually everyone and everything here, which does rather give The Surrogate the status of a feel-good fairytale. But most decisively, in audience terms, it argues in favor of living a full life, whatever one’s personal constraints, of not being intimidated by societal or religious dogma or, most of all, by one’s fears.

The FilmStage, Jordan Raup
 

Comparisons to "The King’s Speech" are already being thrown about (just replace the climax of a successful monologue with your first intercourse), but Lewin’s inclination to tell a story going beyond a safe, clean-cut area makes this journey more rewarding. Conveying new sensations one small step at a time as O’Brien hangs on with each painful breath, this peculiar story has enough compassion and wit to be a viable hit.
 

This article is related to: Sundance 2012 Reviews, Sundance 2012 Films, Sundance 2012, Sundance, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.