I’m probably repeating myself, but one of my top thrills as a critic is seeing a first-time writer/director blast out of the gate with an excellent film. Jeremy Hersh’s debut feature, The Surrogate, is one such case, a highly intelligent film on every level.
A gay man himself, Hersh wanted to tell a story with gay protagonists that avoided queer cinema pitfalls of martyrdom and frivolity. He certainly succeeded: the two partners employing their best friend as pregnancy surrogate could not be defined by either term.
Jess, Josh, and Aaron are affluent Brooklynites who appear mostly content with their lives, and are ecstatic in The Surrogate’s opening minutes, when Jess announces she is pregnant. Their joy quickly transforms to alarm, however, when genetic testing on Jess’ fetus comes back as 99% definitive for Down syndrome.
The bulk of the film concerns itself with the aftermath of this news, as the trio weighs whether Jess should opt for abortion or carry her pregnancy to term. The decision-making grows increasingly tense and threatens to rupture their bond permanently.
As a critic, it delights me just as much when a director achieves a lot on a small budget. Filmed entirely with handheld cameras, Hersh cannily lenses all three characters in the same frame as they first hear the genetic testing results. As The Surrogate advances, and as Jessica feels a mounting alienation from Josh and Aaron, we get more and more close-ups and medium close-ups of single characters, with the camera pivoting for reactions from the others.
Hersh has also opted for cinematic realism. As the trio converses in coffee shops and restaurants, visits a special needs community center, and interrogates parents of kids with Down syndrome, each location feels fully lived in. (I suspect that, with few exceptions, the director used actual locales in and around Brooklyn, and very few sets.) Rather than fades or establishing shots to ground us, Hersh cuts from scene to scene as brusquely and abruptly as a New York conversation. No film score tells us musically how to feel, with suspense generated naturalistically by the escalating disagreement among these best friends.
Jess, Josh, and Aaron are not only well-to-do but whip-smart to boot: Jess has a master’s degree and does web design for a nonprofit, while Aaron is a lawyer (we don’t hear about Josh’s career). As a result, their debates are intelligent and spirited. Josh’s comments that as gay men in a bigoted society, they deserve to catch a break and have a “normal” kid, explore the notion of degrees of privilege. As a black woman who knows her American history, Jess rejects any argument with a whiff of eugenics, reflexively dismissing Richard Dawkins’ controversial statement about the moral imperative to abort a fetus with Down syndrome.
Jess is in every scene of The Surrogate, and Jasmine Batchelor is nothing less than superb in this, her feature debut. (Like the other fine actors here, she’s cut her teeth on TV roles until now.) Jess is an exuberant and passionate extrovert, and by the end of this film, my introvert self was exhausted by her intensity, though fully sympathetic to her dilemma.
Chris Perfetti plays Josh as the more emotionally expressive of the partners, more ambivalent about their imminent choice. Aaron, as portrayed by Sullivan Jones, keeps a tighter lid on his affect, though still coming across as kind-hearted.
As I wrote two days ago, going to a cinema will be a dangerous prospect for the foreseeable future, a risk I’m unwilling to take. Though I regret that Jeremy Hersh’s film didn’t get a theatrical release, The Surrogate is proof – along with a raft of other recent streaming releases – that you can have a topnotch viewing experience at home and not put yourself in harm’s way.
(The Surrogate is now available to stream. You can support indie theaters by renting it through sites like this one.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )