Where in the body do you store the nourishing feeling of company? How do you cultivate a love you can live inside, when that love blossoms within a temporary circumstance? How do you take your loneliness back off the shelf and return it to the center of your kitchen table when a friend may potentially depart? In Together Together, Matt (Ed Helms), a soon to-be father, and Anna (Patti Harrison), his surrogate, are forced to navigate these questions as their friendship grows during Anna’s pregnancy.
Together Together has the qualities of most touching, cheeky indie comedies. It’s 90 minutes, it has a three-act structure that’s segmented in a way which reinforces its themes (each act covers a trimester), there is a revolving door of beloved comedians—Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Fred Melamed once again nailing the sweet dad schtick (see also: Shiva Baby). But what is especially striking about writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature is its exploration of family, friendship and the interpersonal hoops people jump through to offset the pangs of loneliness.
In the film’s opening scene, Matt’s 40-something tech dude interviews potential candidates for surrogacy and ultimately chooses Anna, a 27-year-old woman. She’s estranged from her religious family due to their judgement towards her high school pregnancy and the baby she subsequently gave up for adoption. Throughout the surrogacy, Matt aspires to nurture and parent a child, build a family of his own and thereby curb the lonesome life that otherwise awaits him. Through her compensation for the surrogacy, Anna will earn the tuition money required to pay for an accelerated college program in Vermont where she can finally earn the degrees she’s dreamed of. What’s supposed to be a mutually beneficial, finite social contract between Matt and Anna becomes increasingly complicated by the loving friendship the pair develop ahead of Anna’s due date.
This friendship, even if it’s the basic premise, is a surprising element of the film. Anna is initially somewhat turned off by Matt’s bumbling, lovable, well-intentioned idiot-man behavior, of which there is plenty. During a joint birthing class, for example, the moderator—a sort of blonde zen warrior—asks Matt and Anna if they’re partners, to which he replies, “No, we are feminists.” He immediately catches himself and grimaces. He’s said the wrong thing. These comic verbal foibles effectively infuse the film with funny flourishes, but they also subtly reinforce the age gap distancing Matt and Anna.
Often, Anna immediately has the language for her wants and discomforts. While baby supply shopping, an employee sighs sympathetically after hearing that Anna is not raising the baby with its father but then quickly pivots and cheers when finding out that Matt is the single dad-to-be. Why the double standard? Anna spots it and names it. She is cogent, quick and unabashed. In contrast, Matt—who learns about braiding hair and using tampons because of Anna’s guidance—often seems to be straining for the right words, for the lexicon that will signal to others that he is approachable, emotionally intelligent, worthwhile. In the world of the film, Matt is renowned for an app in which people can scroll just to see pictures of people nearby. Even in his work life, Matt strives to simulate the feeling of human connection for himself and for other people. The app is both the source of his wealth and a signifier of his loneliness, evidence of his 2D proximity to people before Anna becomes a real-life, 3D companion.
The age gap and differing levels of fluency in how to navigate social situations—polite abandon versus a developing social awareness—lead you to think that these people cannot possibly be fast friends. But Beckwith’s writing proves you wrong. It is precisely because of the teamwork required to build an environment for the impending baby, whom they call “Lamp,” that their friendship is forged and fortified by a mutual understanding of longing for family. The pregnancy becomes this project for the pair, in which Anna is given care and attention as the pregnant person and Matt has the opportunity to offer that care and attention as the indefinite parent.
Despite their glaring differences, Matt and Anna are tethered by their familiarity with the keen sting of departure and distance from family, chosen and otherwise. While Anna is somewhat relieved to be estranged from her family, who grew to conflate Anna with what they perceived as her personal blemishes and sins, she misses the feeling of belonging. This complexity is heightened by the revelation that Anna first moved to Northern California to be with a romantic partner—and things ultimately fell apart. Similarly, Matt was in a romantic relationship with someone for a decade before it ended. In his 40s, he tells Anna that all of his friends are either parents (which he envies) or like him, “stagnant” and single. For Matt, single life feels like the opposite of freedom, and therein lies a glaring benefit of the permanence of parenthood.
By coming together in a series of therapy sessions—first for Anna’s check-ups and then recreationally to share dinner, decorate Lamp’s nursery, watch all ten seasons of Friends together—Matt and Anna achieve a dually generative task: Matt cares for Anna and her ever-changing body; Anna coaches Matt on how to care for a vulnerable, young person. Just as she prepares Matt for his own family, Matt invites Anna into his life to be his chosen family. Matt attempts to reach for the right words about his desire to be a decent, unembarrassing man. But they are also about his desire to not deter the possibility of company, to not disqualify himself from the places where people dwell. His invitations to Anna—his expressions of concern about her and Lamp—result in this distinct emotional intimacy that is never precisely romantic or sexual, yet carries all of the urgency and anxiety of new love.
That urgency and anxiety pools slowly throughout Together Together and culminates in the film’s third trimester. Anna professes platonic love for Matt after receding from him in anticipation of the due date and the resulting change in their dynamic. Matt responds in kind: “I love you too.”
It is a rare and lovely thing to see friendship between a man and a woman be treated with the same gravity as that of a romance. But Together Together achieves it. The film is comedic evidence that people spend their whole lives being wary of entering loving relationships that may not last and looking for family in the eyes of strangers and the palms of potential friends. Beckwith’s decision to position the pregnancy as an inciting incident—rather than as the first hit of a drumroll which culminates in the anticipated birth—gives the audience ample time to gaze upon these lonely leads who quell the question marks in their hearts through friendship.
The ambiguity of the film’s final shot—a close-up of Harrison’s exasperated, joyful, uncertain face—places the onus on the audience to decide whether Anna and Matt will go on being the opposite of alone, together. Will the cavity from which Lamp emerged results in an emptiness for Anna that is not merely metaphoric? Or is the addition of this new life for her dear friend just the beginning of a life which will be more peopled? Who’s to say? Perhaps loneliness is in fact a lingering possibility that people never quite vanquish, but also a state of being that can be paused by the generation of a new life—or at least a generative outlook from the people in our lives.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.