It’s amazing how terribly large a parent’s imagination can be when it comes to envisioning a life for their child, even well before the baby is actually born. The Surrogate revolves around a gay couple in New York City and the dear friend they’ve enlisted to be the surrogate for their child. At first, all three are elated, enraptured by the life they’ve created and all the promise it holds within. Then they get a test result confirming that the fetus has all the genetic markers that indicate Down’s Syndrome, and all of their carefully-made plans fall to pieces.
Surrogate and professional best friend Jess Harris (Jasmine Batchelor) is a pillar of strength through all of this. She arranges for them to visit a community center that has programs for kids with Down’s Syndrome, and aggressively befriends one of the mothers there, who gamely fields all of her intrusive questions with grace. But as she throws herself into the world of parenting a child with Down’s Syndrome, it’s increasingly clear that the two fathers aren’t as convinced.
The Surrogate proposes an interesting moral quandary, one that might have been explored in more depth with a better script. But ultimately, the baffling characterization of Jess lets the film down. It seems to be laboring under the delusion that her constant insistence on claiming the moral high ground is somehow endearing, when it’s genuinely off-putting. It begins with little comments to other pregnant mothers who make polite small talk — she wants them to know that she’s a surrogate for her friends, but rejects any admiration for her kind act in the way that people who are especially desirous of praise tend to do.
Perhaps without even realizing it, Jess projects the image of a saintlike figure, willing to give her friends this priceless gift with no thought of reward. She is comforting and supportive and promises that no matter what they decide to do, she’ll go along with it. It’s difficult to tell if she’s legitimately that noble of a person, or if appearing so allows her to feel as though she’s better than everyone else. And as she becomes more emotionally invested in the pregnancy, the selflessness that led her to become a surrogate in the first place also makes her incredibly judgmental. She spends the first two acts of the film proudly proclaiming her intention to be in her friends’ corner the entire time, leaving the decision-making up to them. But then she turns on a dime, suddenly attempting to railroad her supposed friends into having a kid when they’ve already come to a difficult decision.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to continue with a pregnancy that will give a developmentally disabled a loving home and family. But there’s also nothing wrong with ending a pregnancy when you feel particularly ill-equipped to raise the resulting child. The fact that Jess becomes so sanctimonious is a real stumbling block for the film. It makes its lead character, the one we’re supposed to emotionally connect with, feel harsh and unyielding, which also lends The Surrogate an unpleasantly preachy vibe. There are parts of the film that aim for nuance, but given the fact that they’re intercut with long sermons from Jess, so convinced that she alone is an arbiter of morality who knows what’s best for everyone else.
Adding to this problem of not being able to connect with the lead character is the fact that her friends, the gay couple whose future child she’s carrying, are supremely underdeveloped. It’s sometimes easy to forget that they’re two-thirds of this pregnancy situation, because the feelings of Jess leave little space for anyone else. Other characters — friends, colleagues, family members, even a hastily thrown together love interest — enter and leave the film at random, their purpose difficult to determine and their impact on the narrative minimal. In general, The Surrogate feels like a morality play, and each of the characters represent more of a broad, abstract embodiment of a specific ethical perspective than an actual flesh-and-blood person. The result is a film that asks a lot of important questions, but fails to draw the viewer in. And unfortunately, neither the writing nor the performances are strong enough to overcome these issues.
Directed by: Jeremy Hersh
Written by: Jeremy Hersh
Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones