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Sundance 2012. Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate"

The Audience Award-winner may be "Oscar-bait," but for critics at Sundance, John Hawkes's performance makes up for the bland filmmaking.
The DailyThe Surrogate

"One of the gems of this year's festival," begins Jeremy Kay in the Guardian, "The Surrogate is such an unexpected crowd-pleaser that awards specialist Fox Searchlight wasted little time snapping up worldwide rights on Monday evening for around $6m — easily the biggest deal of the festival so far." Of course, he wrote that on Tuesday, but in the New York Times today, Brooks Barnes confirms that, going on the information that's been made public, it's still this year's biggest acquisition. Kay: "John Hawkes delivers a mesmerizing performance, but this time there is no trace of menace in the actor who spooked Park City audiences last year as a cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. What's also new is that he has a lead role all to himself. It's classic awards bait: a polio victim, virtually paralyzed and confined most of the day to an iron lung, resolves to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate."

"The performance falls into a category awards voters love," agrees the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "The severely disabled hero trapped in a body he can't control and struggling to live a full life in spite of it. My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are the obvious forebears, but Surrogate is uncalculated and free of obvious influences. Based on the life of San Franciscan Mark O'Brien, it's unimaginatively shot (Ben Lewin wrote and directed), hits the expected smart, sentimental notes, and is just about bulletproof… Hawkes, who has made his bones playing violent hillbillies and creepy cult leaders, gets a welcome change of pace as an intelligent, soulful nice guy — Mark's a poet, and a good one — and on top of that he spends the entire movie sideways."

"Hawkes is so charming and innately lovable that even God, as represented in this terrestrial realm by a priest played by a shaggy-haired William H Macy, gives Hawkes a pass to lose his virginity the old-fashioned way: by paying someone to have sex with him." Nathan Rabin at the AV Club: "I should despise The Surrogate. It's everything I usually view with suspicion, if not downright contempt. It's undeniable Oscar-bait (Helen Hunt would actually deserve the Oscar if she won next year for her tender portrayal of a sex surrogate) as well a heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity as flatly and unimaginatively filmed and devoid of style as a TV movie from the 1980s. Yet none of that ultimately matters; an excess of style would only distract from the visceral emotions and powerful acting at the film's core."

More from Simon Abrams (House Next Door), Ray Greene (Box Office, 4/5), Anthony Kaufman (Screen), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE, B+), Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), Drew McWeeney (HitFix, B+), James Rocchi (Playlist, B) and Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly). Dan Schoenbrun talks with Lewin for Filmmaker. Interviews with Hawkes: Jen Yamato (Movieline) and Jada Yuan (Vulture).

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