Together, Alone

Together Together writer and director Nikole Beckwith talks to Ella Kemp about platonic love, pragmatic pregnancy, melancholic comedy and being inspired by Magnolia’s rain of frogs.

The three of us were having our own platonic love affairs while we were making the film, which was very, very cool.” —⁠Nikole Beckwith on working with Ed Helms and Patti Harrison

Back before vaccinations began, when we were still looking for glimmers of hope, the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival delivered us an abundance of joy: the family dramedy CODA, Questlove’s extraordinary piece of history, Summer of Soul, the delightful Sesame Street documentary and some precious smaller stories, too. One of those is the low-key revolutionary Together Together, Nikole Beckwith’s “visual representation of a warm hug”.

A platonic love story about surrogacy and solo parenting, Together Together stars Ed Helms as Matt, a single man in his forties who desperately wants to be a father. Interviewing women to carry his baby, he chooses twenty-something Anna, played by Patti Harrison, who completely nails her first feature leading role (she has previously appeared in A Simple Favor and Raya and the Last Dragon).

Over the nine months that follow, the pair boundary-shift as they navigate their unconventional relationship. They’re not together-together, but the bond between them is real, and strong. “Matt and Anna are loners, but they’re comfortable and functional in that space,” Beckwith explains. “And part of their connection is recognizing and respecting that in each other.”

Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together.
Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together.

Flipping the narrative on surrogacy stories, Together Together encourages audiences to think about family in a new way. “Matt is in this strange middle zone,” Beckwith explains. “He’s not part of a community with a ton of children, and he’s not out partying at bars or living the child-free life. So the key to moving out of that space is taking matters into his own hands and redefining his future, and his idea of and desire for parenthood comes from himself—not from wistful fantasies romanticizing the idea of having kids.”

Anna’s story is just as clearly drawn: positive, rational, generous. “The last thing I wanted was to see her looking at children, with her hand on her belly, thinking ‘How am I going to give this up?’,” the filmmaker says. “I think that’s a really dominant way into surrogacy stories, but surrogacy is positive, it’s additive, and Anna knows herself. She knows what she’s capable of.” It’s a rare depiction of pregnancy on screen. “When a woman becomes pregnant, they’re not completely eclipsed by that fact. It doesn’t become their primary identity. So Anna is being very pragmatic about that experience.”

Together Together embraces “alone-ness” in a reassuring way, especially coming after a year in which many of us have experienced solitude involuntarily. Originally from Newburyport, Massachusetts, Beckwith spends a lot of time alone, but is firm that loneliness and solitude are not the same thing. Her story about the ambiguous spaces we inhabit when we don’t have a partner has its roots in real-life relationships.

“We just couldn’t get enough of each other,” Beckwith says of one male friend who changed her life when she moved to New York, far away from the small town she had grown up in. “I was just totally electrified and excited by them, and it was so hard for me to figure out that we were falling in platonic love. I hadn’t realized that was a kind of love you could fall in and just thought, ‘how beautiful’.”

The timelessness of non-romantic relationships is reflected in the film’s wondrous piano score, “a strange, poetic stream of consciousness” composed by Alex Somers, who also scored Captain Fantastic and Honey Boy. It is a hat-tip to Nora Ephron’s films, “those two-hander relationship movies in which the score is largely piano standard,” Beckwith explains. “We didn’t want it to sound old, while still having a whiff of nostalgia, while still feeling new, but in a timeless way instead of an overtly modern way.”

Beckwith looked for inspiration in all the right places. She nods to the dynamic between Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids as a depiction of platonic love that set the bar for Together Together. For examples of a middle-aged man who oscillates between being alone and lonely, Bill Murray’s performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation led the way. And in terms of the first film to light a fuse in her moviemaking brain, she has Paul Thomas Anderson to thank.

“I had a pretty incredible experience watching Magnolia when it was in theaters,” she remembers of the filmmaker’s 1999 emotional epic. “When the frogs fell from the sky, I was like, ‘So you can do anything?’ And then every time William H. Macy turns on his car radio and Gabrielle’s ‘Dreams’ comes on, for some reason that opened a pocket in my mind which was like, ‘These are decisions that somebody is making.’ And that was the first moment, with those two scenes, that I realized movies are made.

“I hadn’t ever thought of the rubber-to-the-road aspects of movies coming from someone specific. Being from a small town, I’d never seen a movie like that before. Those two moments really kind of made me think about it in a new way—it was very cool.”

Writer-director Nikole Beckwith.
Writer-director Nikole Beckwith.

Just as Anderson has brought dramatic nuance out of renowned comic actors (most notably, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love), Together Together also asks us to adjust our expectations of our modern-day comedy heroes. It is packed to the rafters with American indie comedy stars (Tig Notaro, Anna Konkle, Sufe Bradshaw, Julio Torres, Jo Firestone and many more), but plays for laughs only where it feels right. The tone is held throughout by Harrison and Helms, who were, says Beckwith, “grounded and present”.

Leave your memories of Helms as office nerd Andy Bernard at the door, and expect a softer Harrison than the acerbic comedy titan who greets you on Instagram or the TV show Shrill. It was a shot in the dark that such potent chemistry would materialize. “I mean, what is chemistry?” Beckwith says, when asked about the electric feeling her leads emanate. “It’s an elusive magic—you can’t invent it, you can’t count it. It just is or it isn’t, and we were so lucky that it was.”

“They’re both such gifted comedians that there was no doubt in my mind that we could take the things that fuel the stuff we know them for, and just switch it around,” says Beckwith. “I think in order to be a truly terrific comedian you have to be holding hands with all the difficult, melancholy things about being alive, because that’s where comedy comes from and that’s what it relates to—and that’s why it’s so ubiquitous. We need it.”

Together Together’ is in limited US theatrical release from April 23, and on VOD from May 11, via Bleecker Street.

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