Surrogate Valentine
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A couple of years ago, one of the most memorable movies that I saw at the Cleveland International Film Festival was director Dave Boyle’s White on Rice, a quirky little comedy about an awkward 40-year-old who refuses to grow up. So when I saw that Boyle had another film showing at this year’s CIFF (following its premiere at SXSW), I couldn’t wait to check it out—no matter how unlike its predecessor it promised to be.

In this simple and quietly charming black-and-white film, San Francisco musician Goh Nakamura plays himself—a talented indie musician who’s extremely dedicated to his career. As a favor for a filmmaker friend (and to make a little extra money on the side), Goh agrees to take actor Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops) on the road with him, to help him learn to play the guitar for his role as a musician.

Goh is an endearingly awkward character—and you can’t help but love him from the moment he first appears on-screen. Laid-back and quietly self-deprecating, with an easy-going sense of humor, he’s the kind of musician who lets his talent speak for itself. He’s not loud or pushy or larger than life—just the opposite, in fact. But there’s something natural and genuine about Goh playing himself—a real person in a fictional movie about the making of a (somewhat) fictional movie.

Danny, on the other hand, is Goh’s polar opposite: pure Hollywood cheese. The shallow TV actor rambles on incessantly about himself, his techniques, and his admittedly uncool desire to be married. When Goh’s driving, Danny’s talking. When Goh’s trying to sleep, Danny just keeps on talking. He’s an irritating character—and he’ll get on your nerves almost as much as he gets on Goh’s. Yet the two make a strangely entertaining pair—and Danny’s overzealous cluelessness often makes for some surprisingly laugh-out-loud moments.

Still, Surrogate Valentine is a rather aimless film—and audiences with more mainstream tastes will find it a bit slow (and maybe even dull). It’s simple and stripped down—a kind of slice-of-life film about two very different characters who are trying to find love and fulfillment in very different ways. Not a whole lot happens here—and the story doesn’t have a whole lot of focus—but the characters give it a charm that’s hard to resist. Even Danny will grow on you as you get the occasional glimpse of the human being hidden beneath the actor.

It may not be a quirky, colorful comedy like Boyle’s last project, but Surrogate Valentine is a warm and heartfelt film, with characters that will make you smile (and sometimes even make you laugh). The music, too, is phenomenal—and once you’ve gotten caught up in both Goh’s story and his music, you won’t be able to force yourself to leave the theater until he finishes playing the last note of the title song during the closing credits.

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