Writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s comedy “Together Together,” out May 11 on demand, is groundbreaking for having trans actress Patti Harrison playing Anna, a cisgender woman in her 20s, who agrees to be a surrogate for Matt (Ed Helms), a man in his mid-40s.
Harrison is quite ingratiating in the role. Even if Anna’s initial interview with Matt is awkward, he is far more neurotic that she is. In the first part — the narrative unfolds in trimesters — Matt micromanages Anna, which is more exasperating than amusing. He disapproves of what she orders at a restaurant. He tries to give her pregnancy tea and a pair of clogs, so she has arch support at her job at a coffee shop. And he is irked that she doesn’t want to discuss the pregnancy with anyone. He is particularly critical of her having sex with Bryce (Bucks County native Evan Jonigkeit). Like Anna, viewers may want him to go away for nine months and come back when the baby is born.
It is not until Anna and Matt are standing in the future child’s room choosing colors for the wall that Matt calms down a bit and “Together Together” finds its groove. Beckwith is addressing themes of family and the different permutations that label has, but she is also exploring issues of loneliness. Matt reveals that he was in a relationship for eight years, but it didn’t work out. (His ex is assumed to be female.) Anna is estranged from her family after she became pregnant as a teen. These are two lonely people who develop a connection, watching “Friends” and being supportive of each other during difficult times.
These scenes of Matt and Anna together drive at the question of are they — or can they be — friends? This topic is explored throughout the film, but it is best when the characters do not discuss it. The case is not made well when Matt and Anna have a conversation about the inappropriateness of male/female relationships in Woody Allen films, where the men are 20 years older than the women they date. This observation is facile, and unrelated to the arrangement at the center of “Together Together.”
That Beckwith’s film features titles and intertitles are a homage to the Windsor Light font that Allen uses in his films, is more imitation than apt. Moreover, Matt’s critical mother Adele (Nora Dunn) feels like a character out of a Woody Allen film, and his father is played by Fred Melamed, a veteran of several Allen films. Beckwith should have forged her own path here rather than use Allen’s templates as a crutch; it just smacks of trying too hard.
Much of the film’s drama — and there is far more drama than comedy on screen — comes from the characters establishing boundaries. Anna does not want to know the gender of the child, and they nickname the baby “Lamp,” to be gender neutral. Matt wants her to move in with him during the pregnancy, and she agrees to just spending the night. Anna encourages Matt to have a baby shower, even though he is a straight, single man. The party, when it happens, generates some friction between them.
“Together Together,” however, does not create much in the way of narrative tension. That is probably deliberate; Beckwith is far more interested in exploring the dynamics of this relationship born out of a financial arrangement. Anna and Matt see his couples’ counselor, Madeline (out comic Tig Notaro), to address their issues. They banter like an old married couple when they visit the baby technician, Jean (Sufe Bradshaw, who steals her every scene). And in separately-attended support group meetings, Anna is able to talk openly about her experiences with other surrogates while Matt is the lone single man in his sessions.
Beckwith is very sensitive to gender roles, and not just because Harrison is playing cisgender. (Her developing pregnancy is a slight sight gag, with Matt chalking the wall in the baby’s room as Anna grows bigger). One of the best scenes has Anna chiding a salesclerk trying to sell the couple a crib and reacting negatively when she thinks Anna is a single mother, and positively when she learns the child is Matt’s. Likewise, in the couple’s birth class, a lesbian couple applauds Matt and Anna’s arrangement, even if Anna’s sassy gay coworker, Jules (out gay writer/comedian Julio Torres) is more skeptical.
To its credit, “Together Together” has its heart in the right place, which helps, because the film feels strained at times. Much of the positive spirit emanates from Harrison who provides an engaging, grounded presence to Ed Helms’ overbearing character. Anna has depth and is sympathetic. In contrast, Matt is a lonely man who needs to be more flexible. This imbalance makes Beckwith’s film uneven, and only mildly diverting.
Ultimately, “Together Together” works best as a showcase for Harrison. She is so winning and likable that one wishes the film had been told solely from her point of view.