By tamarak With on February 05, 2012

SUNDANCE FILM ANALYSIS THE SURROGATE The film, based on the actual life story of Mark O’Brien who was paralyzed by polio at around age six, opens with actual footage of Mark in his automated gurney "driving" around Berkeley in the 1980s. We are introduced to this remarkably tenacious and outspoken individual who, in spite of his disability, insisted on not being hid away in some nursing home, but pursed higher education and a career as a writer. While he has feeling in his nerve tissue, he has no command over his own physical body, with the exception of muscles in his neck and head. After a couple of traffic accidents on his motorized gurney (go figure!) he is forced to get assistance every day from a caretaker in order to be removed from his iron lung, to bathe, and to be wheeled wherever he needs to go, and placed back in his iron lung each evening. While his is a very difficult existence, Mark finds humor in everything, insisting that God Himself has a “wicked sense of humor”. His strong Catholic faith gives his life meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. When the topic for a new article on sex and the infirm is offered to Mark to write, he reluctantly takes the job, beginning by interviewing several handicapped people. He is surprised to learn that they enjoy fairly normal sex lives, in spite of their disabilities. The topic gets Mark wondering if his condition would preclude him from being able to ever enjoy the loving caress and pleasure of a woman, or whether at age 36, he would ever know love. At the prompting of the woman who requested the article Mark is writing, he learns of a "sex surrogate" who could help Mark learn about his body and understand physical pleasure. While the offer sounds tempting, Mark is dubious that God would find approve, so Mark decides to ask his priest for permission who, surprisingly (given the situation) thinks God may offer Mark a "hall pass" on this one, and encourages him to give it a go. So, Mark accepts the offer and arranges to meet the surrogate. Less than a coming of age film and more of a coming of manhood film, this film contains many humorous moments to propel the story awkwardly forward through each of the four sex therapy sessions. The surrogate Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt, is an average suburban mom with a teenage son and husband at home, who live a very normal existence which makes her job either seem quite normal, or more imbalanced, it is hard to decide. Her husband thinks she is a saint for the line of work she does and does not seem at all phased about her form of “therapy”. The tension during each of the sessions with Mark is palpable and gives great fodder for comedy, beginning with the first encounter when Cheryl outlines the difference between her work and that of a prostitute, putting Mark’s mind to rest. Each week builds momentum as Cheryl gingerly teaches Mark what it is like to feel physical pleasure with another person and to enjoy all that God made our bodies capable of doing and experiencing. Still racked with guilt during the first sessions, it is only when Mark is able to let go of his guilt that he begins to enjoy himself -- and his newfound love interest in Cheryl. But it all concludes sooner than he'd like when the lines between client and patient begin to blend, and Cheryl suggests they end the sessions early for fear that she is losing herself in this new patient. Having worked with a surrogate helps complete life for Mark, who dies at around age 49. In his short, difficult life, he lived more fully than some who have full use of their physical bodies. His only desire was that others would see him as a man, and he was finally able to live out his life completely, drinking in all that God created him (and us) to be, in His image, with his entire body. For me, this film was about a journey towards wholeness and learning to enjoy all that God has given us in life. To live a holistic life, we must be able to engage our body, mind and spirit. Mark had only been employing two of these prior to working with the therapist, but became a whole man once he encountered physical intimacy. Through his humor and his perspective on life, Mark was able to live a very complete life having loved and been loved. And in that, he found a deeper meaning for his own existence.

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