'The Surrogate': Film Review

The Surrogate - Still 1 - Monument Releasing Publicity_H 2020
Courtesy of Monument Releasing
A quietly accomplished debut.

Jasmine Batchelor plays a woman wrestling with a life-changing decision while carrying a child for her gay best friend and his husband in Jeremy Hersh's drama.

One of the many strengths of writer-director Jeremy Hersh's impressive first feature, The Surrogate, is its skill at establishing a highly specific scenario — a pact involving a young single woman, her gay best friend and his husband, all three of them smart, open-minded progressives — and making it completely relatable to any parent, or anyone who has ever considered becoming a parent. This clear-eyed ethical drama is propelled by a performance of stunning psychological insight and raw feeling from Jasmine Batchelor. But the film is rendered even more affecting by the careful consideration it gives to the impact of her character's fluctuating decision-making, both on the people directly involved and those on the fringes.

Originally slated to premiere at SXSW before this year's edition was scaled back to a digital-only event, Hersh's briskly economical yet intensely emotional film will open June 12 in virtual theaters through Monument Releasing. It would be a great shame if the challenging circumstances of distribution right now allowed this small-scale but fully satisfying work to go unnoticed.

Without an ounce of preachiness or melodrama, The Surrogate asks tough questions — about prenatal testing, eugenics, reproductive rights, parenting and special-needs children — in a manner sometimes hard to watch but always compelling and grounded in a firm foundation of what feels like authentic experience.

Hersh has made intelligent choices to heighten the intimacy — from the avoidance of non-diegetic music, allowing every word to resonate, to DP Mia Cioffi Henry's handheld camera, which scrutinizes its subjects without ever calling attention to itself. And the casting is exemplary, right down to the smallest roles, drawing heavily from the pool of New York stage talent.

Jess (Batchelor) is a web designer with a Master's from Columbia; she works for a Brooklyn nonprofit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women readjust to civilian life, but dismisses her job as "a glorified social media manager." She's equally unfulfilled in the romantic department, with boyfriend Nate (Brandon Michael Hall) pushing for greater commitment while Jess hedges with vague talk of other priorities. It's revealed soon after that she's pregnant, having volunteered to be a surrogate and egg donor for her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his lawyer husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones).

Hersh dives almost immediately into the central conflict by seguing with little delay from the celebratory dinner to a medical consultation where they learn that a prenatal test has come back positive for Down syndrome. That sobering news forces all three of them to make tough choices, and the movie acquires its roiling tension from the steady split of opinion isolating Jess from Josh and Aaron.

The well-heeled couple focus on practicalities like the financial commitment and additional healthcare and schooling needs that raising the child would involve, and Hersh is empathetic, never judgmental. Josh and Aaron remain in a somewhat stunned, detached state even as they accompany Jess to a community center where they sit in on a play session for families and their children with Down syndrome. That lovely scene introduces a documentary-like element to the scripted drama, which is calm and contemplative at all times, even as disagreements cause widening fissures among the characters.

Jess' position is influenced in part by her encounters with Bridget (Brooke Bloom, terrific), a young mother who attends the community center with her relatively high-functioning son Leon (Leon Lewis). There's an electric nervous energy to their scenes together. Jess wedges herself into the busy, careworn woman's life and Bridget responds at first with slightly strained kindness and patience. She seems to welcome having a friend to whom she can open up, before eventually backing away once Jess' intrusive requests for advice become one more thing on her overloaded plate.

The contrast between Bridget and Sandra (Meg Gibson), another mother from the center who's all sunshine and optimism, is illuminating. Scenes in which Bridget rolls her eyes about Sandra's objectification of her grown son as some kind of magic-realist unicorn add dimension to the film's sensitive, but also bluntly honest reflections on the complex realities of raising a special-needs child.

Additional dramatic texture and a broader point of view come from scenes with Jess' family. These range from spiky confrontations to quiet moments of comfort and support with her grounded older sister Samantha (Eboni Booth). Jess's father Stephen (Leon Addison Brown) is a loving, even-tempered voice of reason; her mother Karen (the powerhouse Tonya Pinkins), a faculty dean at Yale, is the more dominant force in the family. Karen doesn't hold back in her views on the course of action Jess is considering, with issues of race surfacing in her stinging comments about "the stereotype of the single black mother."

There are no movie-of-the-week histrionics here, and zero moralizing, even on the abortion option — just perceptive, thoroughly absorbing, granular adult drama based on difficult questions to which there are no right or wrong answers, let alone easy ones. Hersh achieves something rare by drawing a milieu that conveys woke liberal ease and privilege — the glimpses of upscale Brooklyn bars, brunch hangouts, restaurants, yoga studios and spacious apartments are quite telling — but creating a situation in which viewers from any background will be forced to mull how they might respond in similar circumstances.

Examining the choices of Josh and Aaron, in particular, the film treads tricky ground. But the nuance of the screenplay and the two excellent actors' performances ensure that they remain sympathetic figures. They acknowledge their limitations with the wariness of two men for whom the right to marry and have children is a relatively recent gain. Making them a mixed-race couple (Aaron is African American, Josh is white) adds another unspoken layer of gravity to their consideration of every aspect of what their future life and that of their child would be. That's clear even if the majority of their decision process happens off-camera.

An almost unbearably tense discussion between the men and Jess after she has retreated in anger and exhaustion to her sister's place in Connecticut shrewdly keeps the ultimate outcome in flux until the very end. The scene is masterfully shot with nimble camera movement to maximize its grip. The Surrogate is very much a thought-provoking drama about parenting, but it's also a wrenching depiction of the ways in which challenging experiences can shatter the loving friendships of chosen families.

The fulcrum of almost every scene, Batchelor gives a performance of astonishing range. In terms of recent movies so finely attuned to the shifting emotional wavelengths of a female protagonist, only Eliza Hittman's gorgeous Never Rarely Sometimes Always comes to mind. At times Jess seems almost painfully naive and sanctimoniously saintly, at others level-headed and purposeful; she can be simultaneously drained and fired up, hardening into intractability. But there's a pit of melancholy inside her that makes the character's uncertainty, like the entire movie, acutely affecting.

The woodsy final scene alone, which reveals the delicate influence of French cinema, will leave you deeply moved by everything Jess has gone through.

Production companies: Tandem Pictures, in association with Resonant Pictures
Distributor: Monument Releasing
Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones, Brandon Michael Hall, Brooke Bloom, Tonya Pinkins, Eboni Booth, Leon Lewis, Leon Addison Brown, Tiffany Villarin, Erin Gann, Catherine Curtin, Meg Gibson, Layla Khoshnoudi, Jennifer Damiano, Purva Bedi, Jennifer Lim, Hannah Cabell, Wesley Taylor, Hunter Canning, William Demeritt
Director-screenwriter: Jeremy Hersh
Producers: Julie Christeas, Jonny Blitstein, Taylor Hess, Jeremy Hersh
Executive producers: David Chan, Sam Bathrick, Adam Barton, Alex Cullen, Ben Wiessner, Jim Cummings, Burr Dodd, Kenneth Filmer, Tony Gapastione
Director of photography: Mia Cioffi Henry
Production designer: D’Vaughn Agu
Costume designer: Lauren Tanchum
Editor: Cecilia Delgado
Casting: Erica Hart
Sales: Visit Films

93 minutes