For most childless women of a certain age, regardless of whether parenthood is within their desired ambitions, the world is full of silent, often judgmental reminders about one’s diminishing chances at pregnancy. Perhaps the universe doesn’t throw its hands in the air and stomp its feet on the ground like Marisa Tomei does in “My Cousin Vinny,” lamenting about a maturing biological clock. But subtle hints about a female’s alleged fertility expiration date seem to be on an offensively steady supply nonetheless, amid a culture that still very much views motherhood not as a joyous yet complex personal choice, but a destiny best fulfilled before it’s too late.
So at the risk of over-sharing, forgive this childless-by-choice 40-something woman for being enamored with the idea at the core of writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s delightful if imperfect “Together Together,” despite its laboriously quirky “Sundance-y indie” disposition. (The film premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of 2021’s virtual Sundance Film Festival.) What if, Beckwith’s film asks, all this fuss about a biological clock isn’t exclusive to women? What if a single, aging heterosexual male can also feel a cavernous urge to finally recognize his paternal instincts and realize he has an internal timer of sorts, too? Perhaps an emotional one at that?
The 45-year-old San Franciscan Matt (Ed Helms) is certainly feeling that yearning movies and TV shows often solely prescribe to women: a drive to select a soothing paint color for a nursery, to plan a cutesy baby shower accompanied by all the gushy noises of friends and family members, and ultimately, to raise a child on his own terms. An awkwardly endearing tech developer who’s made a popular dating app in the realm of Tinder, Matt has decided not to wait for the right partner to come along, but to make his fatherhood dreams come true via surrogate pregnancy instead.
Enter the poker-faced Anna (Patti Harrison), a lonesome, cynical and trendily-clad 20-something in need of the surrogacy funds to get her life back on track by pursuing an accelerated college degree. After a lovably clumsy interview, which smartly serves as the film’s opening scene and gives the audience the lowdown on these oddballs, the two decide to pair up, embarking on an adventure where friendship, intimacy and the true meaning of love intertwine in heartwarming ways. (Well, I did warn you earlier about the utter Sundance-y-ness of “Together Together.”)
In fairness, Beckwith mostly manages to sidestep cringe-inducing whimsy you’d expect from this sort of fare. If anything, she more often errs on the side of one-note seriousness in tone and a starkly bland visual execution, tendencies that suffocated her first directorial effort “Stockholm, Pennsylvania.” It also doesn’t help when the filmmaker manifestly uses Anna as an ideological proxy for herself to inorganic effect.
A tediously overdone scene where Anna debunks Matt’s favorite Woody Allen films as problematic and explains in detail why the age-old formula of a much older man dating a young woman is appalling especially misses the mark with its poor analogies, disregarding the legitimate autonomy young women who’ve past the legal age of consent have. Still, Beckwith thankfully keeps these on-the-nose impulses at bay for the most part and instead, concerns herself with building disarming chemistry between Matt and Anna. A lesser version of this film would have insisted on forming some sexual tension between the duo. But Beckwith fortunately resists the temptation with grace, almost pledging to make “Together Together” the anti-“Juno” of pregnancy movies.
In that regard, it’s simply a joy to witness her central characters, brought to life by two observant, patient actors, open up to each other, developing a relationship that exceeds romantic love and reaches something near-spiritual over platonic sleepovers, binge-watching of “Friends,” uncomfortable prenatal classes, counseling sessions (with Tig Notaro as therapist) and random moments when both of them question their personal boundaries. As one would expect from the sweet-natured dentist of “The Hangover” franchise, Helms infuses Ed with an affable edge that gains depth as Beckwith reveals his fault lines through thoughtful and amusing dialogue lines. In the hands of the charismatic Harrison, Anna similarly comes into sharper focus with a profound, gradually disclosed back story that involves a family fallout due to a teenage pregnancy years earlier.
Despite all the predictable flaws of “Together Together” and an array of side characters — like a hilariously stiff-upper-lipped ultrasound technician played by Sufe Bradshaw — that begs to be better developed, Beckwith puts forth something rare and full of feeling. This is a genuine love story between two straight individuals of the opposite sex that doesn’t involve sex (let’s call it friendship for kicks), an insightful redefinition of masculinity as well as a gentle, intimate celebration of a unique, 21st-century family in the making. Even the harshest skeptics might not be able to resist the finale — a tear-jerking sequence of childbirth, perceptively lensed in closeups by cinematographer Frank Barrera. It’s perhaps thanks to that exquisite ending that “Together Together” runs away with all its fancifulness tenderly and miraculously schmaltz-free.
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