Nikole Beckwith’s surrogacy drama, Together Together, starring Patti Harrison and Ed Helms, is sweetly subversive if a little thin.
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In the Sundance intro to Together Together, writer-director Nikole Beckwith (Stockholm, Pennsylvania) explained that she wrote the film in response to a lack of narratives about platonic love, the male biological clock, and female surrogates who aren’t conflicted over giving up a child. The result is a film unlike any I’ve seen before, even if it feels familiar in so many other ways, from story structure to tone. It’s a film that’s more aspirational than realistic: it glosses over some of the tougher realities of surrogacy in a noble effort to destigmatize it.
It’s rare and refreshing to see a two-hander between an actor and actress in which the man is bursting with parental instincts and the woman has none at all. We learn in the opening scene, in which the single Matt (Ed Helms) interviews potential surrogates for his child, that Anna (Patti Harrison) had a kid in high school that she gave away for adoption. Matt is skeptical at first — he said on the application form that he wanted candidates who already had kids — but as Anna points out, she’ll have an easy time giving this one away because she’s done it before. While Beckwith leans into other storytelling cliches throughout the narrative, she never once suggests Anna is having second thoughts about giving her child up to Matt. Instead, Anna remains relatively blase about the whole process, while Matt worries, fusses, and excitedly prepares his home for a baby.
Off the top of my head, I could list a number of films about single women in their 30s and 40s who decide to have a baby on their own — The Back-up Plan, The Switch, Baby Mama — but few that put a man in the same position. Because men don’t have to have biological children before a certain age, and cultural narratives around men aren’t typically centred around their fertility, it’s rare to see a man on screen like Matt, who hits forty-five and feels a burning desire to be a father. Helms is awkwardly charming in the role, conveying a man who is both giddily excited and increasingly out of his depth, as the enormity of raising a child starts to hit him. Still, just as Beckwith never paints Anna as naturally maternal, she never suggests Matt will be an irresponsible or uncaring parent because he’s a man. His anxieties are no more or less than any new parent.
While Beckwith’s film starts with two strangers and ends with an “I love you,” like most rom-coms, she uses those tropes to tell a story of platonic, rather than romantic, love. While both parties, and particularly Anna, are initially firm that they should maintain strict, professional boundaries, their shared loneliness eventually attracts them to each other. The closest the film comes to toying with a romance is a scene where the two discuss what an acceptable age gap in a relationship is (Anna is twenty six and Matt is forty five). Anna quickly rebuts Matt’s assertion that a nineteen-year age gap isn’t weird: “I think you’ve watched too many Woody Allen movies.”
In fact, Beckwith portrays friendship between men and women as an overwhelming positive thing, especially for Matt, who will potentially be raising a baby girl on his own. The smart and sharp Anna always calls him out for any potentially sexist or shaming behaviour. In one early and hilarious scene, a waiter asks Anna if she wants a side of potato or salad, and when she replies “potato,” Matt’s disapproves, only to order a carbonara for himself straight after. He explains that she needs to eat carefully because “the baby eats what you eat.” As she wryly points out, the baby is going to eat what he eats for the next eighteen years, so maybe he shouldn’t be ordering pasta with bacon. Later, Anna asks Matt to “tell me what a period is”; as she reminds him, he’ll have to have this conversation at some point if his baby is a girl. When he’s too embarrassed to say the word “vagina,” and whispers it instead, she gently chides him that kids will pick up on the whisper and register it as a shameful word.
As sweet and subversive as Together Together is, I can’t help but compare it to another Sundance surrogacy drama, Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, which deals with the realities of surrogacy in a more down-to-earth way. The masterful Private Life made our list of the 50 best films of the 2010s for its humane, detailed, and often funny look at a middle-aged couple trying to have a baby by any means necessary. There’s room for both, but in comparison, Together Together sands off the rough edges.
Anna’s character, for example, seems almost too at ease with a scenario as physically and emotionally taxing as surrogacy. Patti Harrison (who we named one of the best emerging actors at Sundance) brings her trademark wit to Anna, although her performance is much more layered and grounded than her heightened comedic work in TV show Shrill. Still, I wish the script had given her more psychological nuance to play. Anna agreed to the surrogacy so she could quit her job at a coffee shop, go to college — getting pregnant in her teens put that on hold — and study hospitality. The consistently light tone of the film feels at odds with the infuriating predicament Anna is in: she lives in a country where wealth inequality and the education system is so bad that a working class person has to literally carry a child for nine months if they want to go to school.
I’m glad that this lighter cousin to Private Life exists, because wrapping surrogacy, single-male parenthood, and platonic male-female friendship, presented with the same cosy aesthetics and comforting structure of a rom-com, goes a long way to normalise all those things. Still, I feel like there’s a middle ground between the melancholy Private Life and the lighthearted Together Together, which goes down almost too easy. The warm chemistry between Helms and Harrison makes Together Together a nice comfort watch, although if you leave the film wanting something more, Private Life is on Netflix to watch at your convenience.
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