SXSW Review: ‘Surrogate Valentine’ is a Funny, Sweet Slice of Life

The thought of an indie film about a struggling guitar player teaming up with a C-list TV star may inspire cringes in potential viewers. It certainly sounds like a festival film you’ve already seen. Did I mention that the guitar player was quietly pining for his ex to fill the emotional heartache quota? And that the film is shot in black and white? Despite what these revelations may do to your preconceived notions, Surrogate Valentine is a genuinely funny and enjoyable film that transcends these indie film cliches.

The aforementioned guitar player is Goh, co-writer Goh Nakamura essentially playing himself in the lead role. He’s a musician trying his best to make it, teaching guitar lessons and playing shows all along the West coast, but particularly trying to make a dent in the Seattle music scene. When his friend Amy (Joy Osmanski) offers him a paid gig teaching a TV star how to play guitar for her indie film, which is kinda sorta based on Goh and his relationship with Rachel (Lynn Chen), who he still has feelings for, he reluctantly agrees, dragging Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops) along with him on a road trip to Seattle.

Danny is gung-ho about getting into the role and while he’s serious about his commitment he’s so scatter-brained and unaware of how to actually learn anything that he spends most of his time trying to imitate Goh with a ridiculously husky Clint Eastwood-like voice. Goh is predictably nonplussed but soldiers on, taking Danny with him and trying valiantly to teach him something about the guitar while also trying to get his own life and career on track.

The film is peppered with amusing moments. On the first leg of their trip, Goh stops to get some sleep but can’t because Danny won’t stop asking him questions, seemingly unable to take a hint. But Goh comes around a bit when Danny manages to change a Seattle big shot’s mind about Goh’s chances, deciding to put Goh’s album in retail stores in Seattle. It’s a huge break for Goh and he’s awe-struck that Danny pulled it off. Danny trying to play Goh’s wingman when they meet up with Rachel and her new boyfriend is also the perfect combination of funny and awkward.

Dave Boyle has made a charming well-paced film in this, his third directorial effort. One of the more interesting things about this particular story was its setting in San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles. For whatever reason, the vast majority of these types of films seem to end up set in either New York or LA and this in particular seems like a LA story. It’s refreshing to see indie film being made and based in other places. Boyle shows his confidence as a director, pulling believable performances out of his actors and crafting memorable scenes that ring true.

Goh did the music and songs himself, adding to the autobiographical slant. The songs that are featured are smooth and catchy, but unobtrusive, aiding in the storytelling without taking anything away. The music isn’t jarring in any way; it simply underscores the tone of each scene and the film as a whole. It’s easy to see that Goh is very talented and actually has a legitimate chance to make it.

Surrogate Valentine is a relatively quiet and simple film. It reminded me of Once but not in enough specific ways to draw a true comparison. It just has a similar feeling, a feeling of honesty and realism. The film is a collection of moments that all ring true. The story is basic but effective and the storytelling is sure-footed and effective. Goh sells the frustration of a struggling artist, the heartache of not being with the woman you love and the bemusement at the crazy twists that life throws your way. In the end, Surrogate Valentine is a good-natured, entertaining film that put a smile on my face.

Luke Mullen has a beard.

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