A crowd-funded debut proves a crowd-pleaser - and provoker

The Surrogate_Dir Jasmine Batchelor[6458]

Source: Visit Films

‘The Surrogate’

Dir-scr. Jeremy Hersch. US. 2020. 93 mins

When 29 year-old web designer Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) agreed to be an egg donor and surrogate mother for her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones), it didn’t occur to her that the informal verbal agreement which bound them together might not be fit for purpose. But then Jess’s perennial state of sunny, can-do optimism is presumably one of the reasons she agreed to help her friend in the first place. When an early test reveals Down Syndrome, it becomes clear that Jess and the fathers-to-be are at odds when it comes to the way forward. A superb central performance from Batchelor guides the audience through a film which navigates an ethical and emotional minefield, and concludes that there are no easy answers.

An awards-standard performance from Jasmine Batchelor is a key selling point.

This crowd-funded feature debut from Jeremy Hersch, whose short film Actresses played at Sundance and SXSW, wears its low budget and no-frills approach with ease. The unpolished look of the picture is no impediment to a film which driven almost entirely by increasingly prickly exchanges of dialogue, delivered by impressive performances across the board. It’s a film which, with its needling approach to its thought-provoking themes, is a tailor-made film programme conversation piece, as attested by its healthy festival circuit life following its debut at SXSW in April. Already released through VOD in the US (by Monument Releasing), it’s a picture which could prove attractive to distributors in further territories looking for punchy subject matter for streaming releases. The awards-standard performance from Batchelor is a key selling point.

The arc of Batchelor’s character, from appeasing optimist to wounded realist, is as persuasive as it is compelling. Jess’s first instinct, when she and the baby’s fathers are given the news, is to nurture. She is capable, caring, unflappable, while a red-eyed Josh weeps into the sofa. It is Jess who takes the initiative, suggesting that a good first step would be to educate themselves by meeting Down Syndrome children and their parents. But even as Jess reaches out, forging new connections while patting Josh reassuringly on his knee, it becomes clear that her best friend and his husband are having doubts about whether they even want the pregnancy to be carried to term. Their worries – and the forceful arguments of Jess’s mother – are pragmatic. Jess, meanwhile, begins to shed her instinctive tendency to ease the troubles of other people; she becomes a fiercely vocal advocate for the right to life of her unborn child.

What’s deeply satisfying about this knotty drama is the even-handed approach. Of course we side with Jess – her body, after all, her baby, her choice. But we also feel the anguish of Josh who is caught between Aaron’s caution and Jess’s mounting anger. We even take on board Jess’s mother’s strongly-worded argument that, as a young African American woman with ‘a master’s degree from Columbia’, Jess has a responsibility to her own potential first and foremost, as well as to the child she carries. Deft camerawork picks up the unspoken cues in encounters – the reticence of Bridget, the mother who Jess befriends; the way that Bridget and her husband briefly glance at each other when it becomes clear that Jess is asking for the truth but expecting a positive spin.

One scene sits awkwardly: Jess spontaneously berates the manager of a restaurant over its lack of disabled facilities, a moment which seems rather forced. But for the most part, this is a sharply written, rewardingly complex debut which suggests that both Batchelor and Hersch are talents to watch.

Production company: Tandem Pictures

International salest: Monument Releasing, releases@monumentreleasing.com

Producers: Julie Christeas, Jonny Blitstein, Taylor Hess, Jeremy Hersh

Cinematography: Mia Cioffi Henry

Editor: Cecilia Delgado

Production design: D’Vaughn Agu

Main cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones, Brooke Bloom, Tonya Pinkins, Brandon Micheal Hall, Eboni Booth, Leon Lewis, Leon Addison Brown, Tiffany Villarin, Erin Gann, Catherine Curtin, Meg Gibson