I’m a deeply committed Peter Dinklage fan, both because he’s a marvelous actor, and because I think his sex appeal and sense of humor and advocacy for folks of short stature offer a way forward for depictions of people in pop culture that go beyond the pathetic. So I was delighted to see The Surrogate, an affectionate sex comedy based on journalist Mark O’Brien’s article about his experience with the sex surrogate who helped him lose his virginity after a life largely spent confined to an iron lung after a childhood bout with polio. There’s a lot to like in the movie: John Hawkes, killing it in a lead role that will get him awards attention beyond his great performances in smaller projects like Deadwood; a lot of compassion and serious thinking about sex by able-bodied and disabled characters alike; William H. Macy as Mark’s friend and confessor Father Brendan. And when all of that comes in a movie that’s dedicated to seeing folks with disabilities as fully human, you’ve got a special and important movie, even if it’s one that hews to general romantic comedy conventions.
Part of what’s fresh about The Surrogate is the movie’s efforts to actually get us inside Mark’s head for the minor irritations as well as the traumas. “Scratch with your mind,” he tells himself during a long night in his iron lung. “Scratch with your mind.” When his iron lung is disabled during a blackout and he drops the stick he needs to call for help, his reaction is muted and practical, rather than panicked, even though he lands in the hospital. When he meets Susan (Deadwood coworker Robin Weigert), who is working as a volunteer in the hospital, she asks him, “Are you religious?” “Yes,” he tells her, with humor rather than bitterness. “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all of this.” Mark’s disability has neither canonized him or crushed him.
When it comes to sex, the movie is quietly resolute on the question of whether people with disabilities can have fulfilling sexual lives or can be sexually desirable. Mark decides to see a sex therapist and then a sex surrogate when his reporting for another piece introduces him to Carmen, a woman in a wheelchair who tells him how good her sex life is (in somewhat hilarious detail). He gets a sign-off from Father Brendan, the new priest at his Catholic church, explaining “this isn’t exactly a confession. I haven’t done the deed. I’m hoping to get a quote in advance.” Once the process is underway, The Surrogate has respect for Mark’s stress, good intentions, and utter lack of experience—even in scenes where he’s experiencing premature ejaculation or behaving awkwardly with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), the surrogate he agrees to work with. Good sex, the movie argues, is a matter of practice for everyone, whether they’re able-bodied or not. When Mark’s caregiver Vera explains to the clerk at the hotel where Mark and Cheryl that the two are working on simultaneous orgasms, the clerk, who has full use of all of his limbs if somewhat attenuated social skills, has no idea what she’s talking about.
There’s no question that The Surrogate follows some predictable arcs. But it’s an illustration of the fact that those dramatic forms can still be powerful if they’re used to frame different kinds of stories about different kinds of people. And with its careful attention to what actually constitutes good lovemaking, The Surrogate is a rebuke to in-heat movie love scenes everywhere. Actually talking about sex is, it seems, still a radical act.