By Richard Ades
The Surrogate is about a woman who is merely, as she puts it, a “vessel” for her best friend’s baby. When her pregnancy develops a complication, however, she finds herself becoming much more.
Writer/director Jeremy Hersh’s drama stars Jasmine Batchelor (The Good Fight) as the complicated New Yorker named Jess. Just why Jess does the things she does is not always easy to understand, but it helps if you pay close attention to the flick’s early moments.
In the first scene, Jess tries to sell would-be fiancé Nate (Brandon Micheal Hall) on a just-friends relationship, telling him she can’t commit because she has no idea what she’ll be doing in a year. She might even join the Peace Corps, she says.
Later, she’s seen trying to find donors to help expand the services of the nonprofit where she works as a web designer. She reluctantly stops only when her boss instructs her to stick to the agency’s core mission.
Jess, it seems, is a relentless do-gooder. Maybe that’s why we don’t see her being truly happy until she finds herself pregnant with the baby she’s agreed to have on behalf of best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband, Aaron (Sullivan Jones). This leaves her so delirious that she’s puzzled when another pregnant woman says she can’t imagine giving up her own baby. To Jess, it seems the most natural thing in the world.
Then things take a startling turn when a prenatal test reveals the baby likely will have Down syndrome. For a while, Jess remains upbeat, cheerfully inviting Josh and Aaron to read up on the condition and to meet the parents of Down children. What she almost willfully fails to notice is that her two friends are going along with her only out of awkward politeness. Only later does she realize that the baby’s prognosis has changed everything.
Hersh’s movie is partly a character study of everyone involved in this gut-wrenching situation, but especially of Jess, who behaves in ways that are both admirable and unadmirable, predictable and unpredictable. Batchelor’s all-in portrayal helps us sympathize with her, whether or not we agree with her actions.
As it goes on, though, the film begins morphing into a debate on a question with no easy answers, in the process bringing up issues of race, class and sexuality. Before it’s over, various characters play the black card, the gay card, even the Jewish card. The effect is that they sometimes seem more like symbols than actual personalities.
This—plus an ending that is abrupt and almost capricious—make this a film that fails to move us quite as much as it enlightens us.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
The Surrogate (no MPAA rating) is available from VOD outlets beginning June 12.