What I’m trying to say is: Helen Hunt is awesome.
Her latest Sundance Film Festival hit is based on an essay Mark O’Brien wrote for The Sun called, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which chronicles his experience losing his virginity in his late thirties. Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate, and Hawkes plays O’Brien, a man who contracted polio at the age of six and became paralyzed except for limited use of muscles in his right foot, neck, and jaw. He couldn’t spend more than a few hours outside of an iron lung (a metal chamber that forces the lungs to inhale and exhale) and, despite that fact, went on to earn a graduate degree in journalism from UC Berkeley—by traveling back and forth between the university and the iron lung at home. With the ability to move only his head, he wrote articles and poems by holding a stick in his mouth and tapping out letters on a computer.
The audience learns all this within the first ten minutes of the film, and that’s about the time I started telling myself to stop going through life like a lazy fuck.
Enter the inimitable William H. Macy (yes!). He plays O’Brien’s priest, Father Brendan, who listens to O’Brien’s confessions every day while guiding him through the guilt he feels about seeking out a sex surrogate. That relationship soon evolves (once O’Brien begins spending time with the surrogate) into more of a friendship, and it’s wonderful to see those lines blurred; watching Macy go from praying with O’Brien in church for the first half of the film to showing up in sweats with a six-pack at O’Brien’s house in the later half got the whole theater cracking up. That friendship grounds the film and keeps it from veering into sentimental territory; the audience looks forward to their light-hearted conversations about some truly heavy subject matter. At the same time, their friendship adds emotional depth to the characters. We realize it isn’t just O’Brien’s physical disability that complicates his sexual exploration, but his Catholic faith as well. These two immensely likeable men clearly like each other—and their pontifications about the role of religion in their lives, and what God will and won’t forgive—keeps this from turning into yet another film about a dude just trying to get laid.
If you go to a prostitute, it’s like going to a restaurant. You read the menu, you choose what you want, they prepare, they hope that you love it, and hopefully you want to come back.
With a surrogate, it’s like going to cooking school. You get the ingredients, you learn to make a meal together—and then the point is to go out into the world and share that and not come back.