This debut from Jeremy Hersh sensitively tackles a huge range of issues without letting them bog down the human story at its centre
With the absolute plethora of weighty “Big Issues” at play in The Surrogate – from race to gender to sexuality to American healthcare to even eugenics – you would be forgiven for thinking that it may end up as a ploddingly worthy film designed to browbeat its audience. Thankfully, Jeremy Hersh’s fleet-footed feature debut is far smarter and more moving, never glib about the issues at stake, but making sure to only use them in service of a small, deeply human story.
The surrogate in question is Brooklyn-based Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), who decides to carry the child of her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) for him and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones). Hersh doesn’t bog the film down with too much backstory – by the time we meet Jess her decision has already been made and we see a positive pregnancy test within the first five or so minutes. Instead, the dilemma comes when, after 12 weeks, a prenatal genetic test reveals that the child will be born with Down Syndrome, which makes Josh and Aaron reconsider whether they want it at all.
Hersh is careful to not present the film’s characters as good or bad people (except for maybe Jess’s parents – her mum is literally called Karen), grounding us in a whirlwind of sometimes toxic but always fully believable emotions. The sudden split between Jess, who steadily becomes more attached to the child to the point where she considers raising it as a single mum, and the couple she’s surrogating for shows how these friends have been taking each other for granted.
Though Josh and Aaron are supportive of Jess as they put her through the wringer, they still display a uniquely male ignorance of the various demands they’re putting on her physically, only considering the difficulties of a pregnancy-abortion-new pregnancy cycle in financial and emotional terms. Different privileges and gaps in understanding inform so many of The Surrogate’s conversations, and it’s always pulled off with great intelligence and empathy, bolstered by excellent performances.
Batchelor and Perfetti, in particular, brilliantly showcase how a conversation sounds when its participants are choking back tears, arguments in which the breathing becomes shallower and shallower without overplaying it to the point of melodrama.
Every tough conversation feels earned, even when Josh, Aaron, and Jess’s parents go into cruelly clinical detail about the moral implications and advantages to terminating a Down Syndrome pregnancy. Hersh balances these hypotheticals with the day-to-day reality of life as the parent of a DS child in all its joys and difficulties, and there are some truly remarkable scenes of the actors just playing with the kids, which feel deeply real while still maintaining the careful precision found elsewhere.
It’s a real coup for a first-time director, one that shows great things to come further in his career; the one thing that slightly trips The Surrogate up is its obviously minuscule budget, which lends it a rather flat look. But this is whip-smart and highly confident filmmaking, unafraid to tackle a swathe of social issues that may intimidate even the most experienced of writer-directors.
The Surrogate is now in cinemas.