Watch: 'Breathing Lessons,' the Short That Helped Inspire 'The Surrogate,' One of Sundance's Most Buzzed-About Films

Watch: 'Breathing Lessons,' the Short That Helped Inspire 'The Surrogate,' One of Sundance's Most Buzzed-About Films

Jan 24, 2012

It's only been about 30 minutes since I finished watching The Surrogate, Ben Lewin's terrific and inspiring film about the real-life struggles of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), who spent most of his life inside of an iron lung, unable to move any of his body parts from the neck down due to post-polio syndrome. Nearing 40, Mark decided he wanted to lose his virginity and write an article about it, so once the funding came in he sought out the expertise of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help guide him through the experience of having sex for the first time. What follows (in the film) is this unbelievably touching journey about sex, love and intimacy with a fantastic, Oscar-worthy performance from John Hawkes, who takes us on a character's emotional adventure with only his face and his breathing.

I know, his breathing? It sounds weird to admire an actor for the work he did breathing on film, but trust me when I say it's crucial to the story and to the experiences of Mark O'Brien. Fox Searchlight devoured the film soon after it premiered at Sundance the other day, and though it's super early for that kind of stuff (doubly so on the day Oscar nods are announced for last year's films), it's hard not to start buzzing about The Surrogate's chances come this time next year. Audiences are finding themselves incredibly moved by this story (at least mine was), and it'll surely find its champions as the year forges on.

Following the screening, writer-director Ben Lewin and his cast took to the stage to discuss making the film, highlighting Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning short documentary Breathing Lessons (1996), which examines O'Brien's life, as one of the pieces that inspired the narrative feature (it was also what Hawkes studied as he prepared for the role). The Surrogate touched me so much that I immediately wanted to run back and share Breathing Lessons with you (courtesy of Snag Films), if only because it's the only part of this story I can share with you until Fox Searchlight decides to release the film.

Those interested in reading more of O'Brien's story can try to track down his article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" (unfortunately we cannot find it online), which was another major inspiration for the film.

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