Tainted Love: Sexual Transgression and Off-Kilter Romance Turn Up Early and Often at Sundance 2012
Ben Lewin's The Surrogate.
Tainted Love: Sexual Transgression and Off-Kilter Romance Turn Up Early and Often at Sundance 2012
Ry Russo-Young's Nobody Walks.
Tainted Love: Sexual Transgression and Off-Kilter Romance Turn Up Early and Often at Sundance 2012
Mads Matthiesen's Teddy Bear.

Tainted Love: Sexual Transgression and Off-Kilter Romance Turn Up Early and Often at Sundance 2012

Share on Tumblr
“The whole coming-of-age thing is a basic, basic element of love and growing to be yourself.” -Director Mads Matthiesen

Love is so difficult to attain, and so elusive to keep, that it seems warranted to ask whether filmmakers who pile all manner of obstacles into their characters’ awkward search for it have a little touch of sadism. Take Dennis, the gentle, insecure, and colossal weightlifter at the heart of Mads Matthiesen’s Teddy Bear. Played by weightlifting non-actor Kim Kold, Dennis is 38 years old and a real misfit when it comes to romance - the film opens as he’s uncomfortably failing at the small talk of a first date. He lives with his prying, needy mom and he is approximately 10 times bigger than anyone else in Denmark (not to mention Thailand, where he goes on a surreptitious quest for a mate). You want to coddle this vulnerable lug, even though, because of all his bodybuilding, there’s no one to blame but himself for standing out in his bulging way.

The dissonance of seeing a he-man like Dennis struggle to overcome his fraught anxieties about love is fascinating to watch. But Matthiesen, like several other filmmakers whose new work is screening in competition at this year’s Festival, is after something deeper than just creatively throwing Dennis to the lovelorn wolves. Like the characters in these other Festival films, Dennis isn’t the kind of person who comes to mind when we hear the term “coming-of-age.” For characters in Teddy Bear, The Surrogate, and Nobody Walks, the attempt to conquer love becomes nothing less than a struggle to determine their place in life.  

“The whole coming-of-age thing is a basic, basic element of love and growing to be yourself,” Matthiesen says. “And that interests me a lot. You want to push it to the edge, you want to make a statement that you can make your own life, and I think that’s hard for a lot of people.”

The search for love makes awkward teenagers of all of us, no matter our age, and sometimes forces us to learn the harsh lesson that growing up – a hurdle we thought we had long ago cleared - is something many of us have yet to figure out. The protagonist of Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate, based on the autobiography of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, is continually coming-of-age despite having passed adolescence some time ago. In fact, The Surrogate is unlike any other film. Uniquely sexually frank, The Surrogate is about the attempt by O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down by polio, to transcend his life confined to an iron lung. O’Brien, played by John Hawkes in the film, doesn’t really set out to fall in love; he’s really out to have sex for the first time.

The line between sex and love becomes blurred in the film. As Hawkes puts it, “You could almost argue that every scene is a love scene because he’s so dependent, and there’s a lot of trust and acceptance that’s required.” O’Brien’s therapist suggests he hire a sex surrogate, someone who, unlike a sex therapist, actually has sex with a client – often someone who may be physically challenged or needs help overcoming issues with intimacy. Cheryl Cohen Greene, the titular surrogate portrayed in the film by Helen Hunt, limits O’Brien to six sessions to underline the relationship’s clear therapeutic boundaries.

Lewin became intrigued by O’Brien’s story after he read O’Brien’s essay about his sex surrogate experience. “Somehow, the way that he described sex - his urge to embrace it and his fear of it - was a universal thing,” Lewin says. “It resonates in able-bodied people; it certainly reflects how I felt about it. It was a mountain to climb. It wasn’t necessarily going to be easy, but you felt compelled to do it.” As much as possible, Lewin worked to replicate O’Brien’s description of the experience. “The way he put it seemed so totally real, as opposed to so much of what one reads about sex, which seems so phony.”

The script for Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks was also borne out of lived authenticity. Russo-Young and her co-writer Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), “were both young women dealing with how the personal bleeds into the professional,” Russo-Young says, although she didn’t experience the same events that occur in the film. Nobody Walks is awash in boundary-crossing, moral ambiguity, and furtive glances. Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a 23-year-old New York art film student, briefly moves to Los Angeles so that Peter (John Krasinski), a respected sound artist, can help her score her film. Peter is confident, kind, and married to a caring therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt). They have two children - one of whom, a precocious young poet still in high school (India Ennenga), falls for Peter’s good-looking assistant just as Martine does. But Martine also falls for Peter while Peter’s wife flirts with falling for one of her clients (Festival regular Justin Kirk).

With all the passion hovering in that household, Nobody Walks is remarkably measured and well-orchestrated. Martine is “very guilty and very responsible,” Russo-Young says, but so is everyone else in the house. Thirlby pulls off a coup with Martine - you feel the character’s lust, excitement, bewilderment, disillusion, and guilt. But Martine is a foil - you find yourself wondering why someone who seems as settled and accomplished as Peter, with a beautiful, loving wife - even considers allowing himself be dragged into an affair with Martine.

One of Russo-Young’s preoccupations while she was writing the script was “coming-of-age no matter what age you’re at,” and Nobody Walks is a thoughtful exploration of that tricky, awkward truth about life. “The more I grow up, the more I keep making choices,” Russo-Young says. “I think the movie really explores those boundaries, those moral moments of ambiguity, and the flirtation with those boundaries, which is something we all go through.”

blog comments powered by Disqus