“It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in the moment when I’m actually incredibly hopeful,” says Matt (Ed Helms) to Anna (Patti Harrison), the surrogate carrying his baby. Weirder still is to be confronted — let’s say “ushered into the presence of and offered a fruit tea” instead — by a film as hopeful as Nicole Beckwith’s Together Together during a period of such extended hopelessness. A sweet little Sundance indie now blossoming into its springtime wide release (it hits theaters on Friday) like a particularly uncynical Marguerite daisy, this platonic romance is a marvel of mildcore, exhibit A in the “New Gentle” genre, punchy as a kitten’s paw. If it’s an ASMR video for pandemic-raddled emotions you’re after, you could do so much worse.
Matt is a 45-year-old web designer, whose biggest success — an app that operates like a non-interactive Tinder where you just scroll through an endless parade of faces — is a perfectly on-the-nose representation of who he is: smiling and social but without any real human connections. It also affords him one of those indie-movie lifestyles where he has a nice home and the odd $100,000 or so to pay for a surrogacy. That he will then raise this kid as a single father is part of the film’s very slight gender-expectation-defying agenda. Friends and loved ones’ reactions are either huh? uncomprehending or aww! condescending, though that might have more to do with him registering as baffled, benign and a flat zero on the sexual-threat scale. In other words, he’s an Ed Helms character.
Crucial to the film’s weighted-blanket cosiness is the fact that Matt represents no such menace to Anna (Patti Harrison), the soulfully sardonic, 26-year-old barista who passes his surrogacy interview. Anna may be a loner but she is also lonely, aside from her deadpan interactions with divaish friend Jules (Julio Torres, very funny in the kind of queer sidekick role that no 2021 movie should still be dealing in). The money for the surrogacy will send her back to college to finish an education that was interrupted by her last pregnancy, the result of which she gave up for adoption — and which was also the reason she fled the judgy bosom of her disapproving family. Beckwith seems to be channeling more of herself into Anna in the talky screenplay. Refreshingly, it’s this woman, and not Matt, who comes into greater focus.
Which isn’t to say that the writer-director is above mining some rather familiar yuks from the One Man and a Baby idea: Matt fumbling to tie a carrier sling, or being primed for an awkward applicator-tampon demonstration down the line should the baby’s second chromosome turn out to be an X. And occasionally, all the insistent appropriateness becomes a little tiresome, as when Anna sets out the central tenets of Age Gap Twitter by referencing the films of Woody Allen, who is [checks notes] apparently Not Cool in this regard. But mostly, the issue stuff — and even the pregnancy and new-fatherhood shenanigans — are kept buckled firmly into the backseat of a vehicle driven by Anna and Matt’s burgeoning buddy-buddy relationship. Despite the legal and practical limitations of their situation, these two extremely likeable people fall head over heels in like with each other.
There’s a lot to be said for stories extolling the virtues of non-romantic relationships between people of the opposite sex, and Together Together is certainly a more modern tale for not having them fall in love. But if you think about the film beyond its throw-pillow huggability, there is something faintly depressing in the way it’s not enough for Matt to no-way, never, not at all make a move on Anna; it’s actually sort of impossible to imagine him ever having sex with anyone. It’s as if a middle-aged male character’s likability, and his viability as a responsible future father, is somehow reliant on the abdication of all sexual possibility for him forever — a notion which feels oddly regressive, for all the movie’s good intentions regarding non-traditional family dynamics.
Once sex is off the table, the big obstacle to their friendship is the generation gap, which they overcome with a kind of good-natured mutual incredulity at the other’s cluelessness. And with Harrison playing 26 and Helms 45, they’re actually repping a Gen Z/Gen X relationship — two Gens that tend to get along fairly well anyway, united by a shared dislike of Millennials. So Matt and Anna go through pre-natal classes, surrogacy counseling (led by Tig Notaro’s underwritten advisor) and sonogram sessions (conducted by Veep MVP Sufe Bradshaw’s superbly stonefaced technician). Matt has the occasional “well ain’t that the darndest” twinkly response. Anna fairly frequently seems to be suppressing an eyeroll. Soon, they’re getting along great.
Except this soothing scalp-massage of a film is only half over at this point is only half over at this point and Beckwith needs to gin up some conflict. So along comes Al-Qaeda, and… — just kidding! Matt and Anna have a falling out that’s just as gentle as their falling in, and given that there’s never any question that she will back out of the deal (or that he will overstep the boundaries she sets), there’s also never any question that it will all eventually work itself out. In fact, in Together Together, there are never really any questions at all.
That the softness of the whole endeavor never quite turns to squish is a lot to do with how naturally the principals underplay it and how genuine their G-rated chemistry seems. “This show is so dumb” murmurs Anna as she and Matt watch their umpteenth episode of Matt’s favorite sitcom, Friends. And she’s absolutely right, about that show and this movie — call it The One Where Anna and Matt Have a Baby. But she’s also crying. And if by the end you are too, don’t worry: Together Together is the kind of movie that aims to make you blubber a bit, if only so it can rub your back and hand you tissues and feed the cat and tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be all right.