Together Together | ★★★★  | In theaters now and available digitally starting Tuesday, May 11

Writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together is a sharp indie film that works as a funny-poignant double character study. It’s a romantic comedy without the romance: a new kind of love story for a swiftly tilting planet.

It goes like this: 40-something Bay Area app designer Matt (Ed Helms) is coming off a failed long-term relationship. His dreams of fatherhood fading, he decides to sign on with a surrogacy agency. Matt is paired with Anna (Patti Harrison), a 26-year-old barista who agrees to be his gestational surrogate. It’s all rather transactional, until it isn’t.

Anna has her own reasons for taking the job, and she’d just as soon manage the next nine months on her own. Matt, however, is determined to get to know the person carrying his child. His intrusions into Anna’s life are genuinely well-meaning and frequently ill-considered. He brings podiatric pregnancy clogs to her place of employment. He tries to monitor her diet, her activities, even her sex life. She’s not having it.

Don’t worry—the film does not go where it likely would have gone in years past, and we don’t have an icky May-December romance to deal with. (The film tackles this issue directly with a funny scene dissing Woody Allen films.) Instead, Together Together depicts Matt and Anna as natural loners—independent people with their own hopes, dreams, and heartaches. Nobody here is completing anybody else.

Director Beckwith maintains this bittersweet tone, even as she stages pitch-perfect comedy set pieces. I particularly liked the baby shower, in which Matt tries to include and protect Anna at the same time. Just before his family arrives, he says: “Thank you for doing this for me, and also I apologize for everyone that I know.”

Together Together has the shape of a traditional rom-com, but it’s scribbling outside the lines. The film is interested in empathy and kindness, and how people care for one another in our fast-moving, technologically mediated relationships. In a genre known for cliched signifiers of phony romance, this is a movie with real heart.

None of this works without the wonderful performances of Ed Helms and, especially, Patti Harrison. Already almost-famous as a stand-up comic and prolific Instagram joker, Harrison is the real deal, and here she gives the kind of breakout performance that launches Hollywood careers. She’s blessed with one of those magical movie-star faces, so expressive that you can read complicated feelings arising, retreating, colliding, and hiding behind other feelings.

And wow, she can bring the funny.  She sets the tone for the entire film in the first scene, in which Matt interviews Anna for the surrogate job. I watched it again just to admire her weird, bold choices. Helms hangs right in there, too. His role could have easily devolved into “OK, Boomer” fall-guy territory, but Helms insists that we appreciate Matt’s humanity in all of this. He just wants to be a good dad.

The film earns additional style points for its skillful use of supporting role ringers: Julio Torres as Anna’s gloomy co-worker, Sufe Bradshaw as a seen-it-all ultrasound technician, and Tig Notaro as a family therapist armed with lethally deadpan reaction takes. There’s a lot to like in Together Together. See it with someone you love.

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