One of my all-time favorite films is a fairly recent one, the 2007 quirky comedy, Juno. I loved Diablo Cody’s writing, I loved the humor, I loved the realistic humanity of the characters, and I absolutely loved the largely platonic relationship between the title character and Jason Bateman, the prospective adoptive father of her child. There is a small amount of sexual tension between them, mostly from Bateman, but I always saw it as him looking at Juno as a reminder of his bygone youth rather than him actually wanting to bang a teenager. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I had a crush on Ellen Page for a lot of years, though it obviously waned as they came out and let us in on their identity and personal journey, eventually becoming Elliot to the world. Nowadays, I still want to give him a great big hug and hang out listening to the Moldy Peaches, but only in the friendliest of ways. In an odd sense, I guess this runs in the family, as my mom, growing up in the 70s, had the world’s biggest crush on Bruce Jenner, but she sure as shit ain’t voting for Caitlyn.
Anyway, when I saw the trailer for Nikole Beckwith’s new film, Together Together, I was reminded of the more wholesome moments of Juno, and went in thinking this would be a spiritual successor, a sort-of sequel set 15 years later with an appropriately aged female lead. But as I watched the film, I found that such a simple comparison would be a reductionist disservice to what is a truly wonderful piece of cinematic art. While working within a similar framework, Together Together is its own unique, glorious story, filled to the brim with clever humor, feel-good moments, and some absolutely brilliant subversion of stale rom-com tropes.
The similarity to Juno is in the form of Anna, played be Patti Harrison in what I hope becomes her breakout role. Harrison is a stand-up comedian and a former writer for Jimmy Fallon whose had a few small roles here and there, particularly in Broad City and most recently in Raya and the Last Dragon, but this is her first real lead. As an aloof, sarcastic Gen-Z-er, Anna is witty, logical, and just genuinely a fun character. Having already had a baby in high school, which she put up for adoption, she agrees to become a surrogate for Matt (the best performance I’ve ever seen out of Ed Helms, and I’ve been a fan of his for nearly 20 years), a single man in his mid-40s who has decided to conceive a child and raise it on his own, because he simply wants to be a parent.
The opening scene sets the beautiful dynamic between the two. As Matt interviews Anna, he sets himself up as a confident, controlling individual, who likes things to go according to a certain plan. He asks her about her past, but she’s only willing to give up a tiny bit of information. When she gets a chance to speak, she brilliantly throws one of Matt’s own questions back at him, disrupting whatever illusions he might have had about anything other than a co-equal relationship. Over the course of just over two minutes, we watch both characters shed whatever façade they had coming into this meeting, with Anna asserting herself as a take-no-bullshit pragmatist and Matt stumbling into a more passive role, allowing his own anxiety and neuroses to show through. This jittery parent-to-be role has been more traditionally given to women and expectant mother characters over the years, so to see a versatile comic actor like Ed Helms take it on is not only entertaining, it’s also the first step in Beckwith’s quest towards dispelling a lot of old clichés. It only gets better as Matt tries to find ways to assert some authority in Anna’s life, only for her to shoot him down with facts, reasoning, and outstanding comic timing.
This whole thing works because it’s understood from the very beginning that these two will not have anything resembling a romantic relationship. There’s even a scene where Anna shoots down the entire concept of age gaps in couples by invoking Woody Allen. While I don’t agree in principle with her position – as myself and several of my family members have been on both sides of such pairings without major issue – it hammers home that this is going to be a platonic relationship only. In fact, the real drama comes from how much they can sustain even a friendship beyond the level of transactional, to say nothing of sex and romance. That fact that the two leads have such amazing chemistry together might normally cause a conflict from both a story and production standpoint, because an audience would want them to wind up together. But instead, their compatibility as actors and as characters ends up reinforcing this rather unique and compelling angle. We root for their individual happiness, not a happy ending together.
The pair are buoyed by a fairly strong supporting cast as well, led by Tig Notaro as a couples therapist who holds regular sessions for them to explore the dimensions of their irregular situation. Her facial reactions alone are worth whatever they paid her and more. Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres is delightful, if mildly stereotypical as Jules, the sassy gay friend/coworker of Anna’s who gets some great one-liners. Nora Dunn and Fred Melamed play Matt’s passive-aggressive parents who obliviously compare Anna’s surrogate situation to that of a living organ donor. I even got a meta kick out of Rosalind Chao as the OB/GYN, Dr. Andrews, because 30 years ago, she played Keiko O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation, including an episode where she gave birth in the middle of a disastrous situation. Now she gets to be the one to tell a different character that she’s ready to deliver. Yes, I’m a nerd. Nice to meet you.
There are so many sweet moments that play out over the course of this film that are more traditionally found in romantic comedies, while at the same time subverting the expectation of romantic coupling. There’s a lovely scene where Anna and Matt pick out the wall paint for the nursery. Matt shows up to a doctor’s visit with a giant stuffed bear. In lieu of finding out the sex of the baby, because Anna wants to maintain a level of detachment, they agree to refer to it as “Lamp,” which is just goddamn adorable. In all honesty, the only bit of bonding they have that I don’t believe is binging Friends with Anna having never seen it despite being in her mid-20s. Bullshit. She definitely watched it as a kid, or through reruns with her parents. There’s no way she successfully avoided that show. Though she is very correct when she calls it “dumb.”
But what I loved most of all was the sly way Beckwith’s script introduces and maintains the idea of impermanence. It’s kind of a heavy theme for an otherwise light film. Throughout the proceedings there are reminders that nothing lasts forever, and that people invariably change. Matt talks to his parents as one unit, but when they come to the baby shower, we learn that they’ve been divorced for quite some time and have both remarried. It’s just a thing that happened. Jules has tattoos on his body of all of his ex-lovers, a permanent remnant of something that no longer exists. Even the ending scene, which I won’t spoil, reinforces this idea in a moment of sheer beauty. It’s by far the best single scene I’ve witnessed at the movies so far this year because of the perfect way it encapsulates this idea.
This is a tremendous piece of low-concept comedy and heartwarming character study. Can you be friends with a total stranger who happens to be carrying your child? It’s an oddly simple question, though not one you’d immediately ask yourself. And it turns out to have a marvelously layered, complex answer. That we could deliver that answer through career best performances from a promising newcomer and a seasoned veteran of the craft playing off each other with ease is just icing on the cake. It’s films like this that remind us why we go to the movies, why we love them so dearly. It gave me the same feelings I had when I first watched Juno some 15 years ago, and it stands on its own as a pure work of art.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you ever act as a surrogate? Would you ever just name your kid Lamp? Let me know!
7 thoughts on “I Love Lamp – Together Together”