A harrowing portrayal of a complex family portrait. The cast had their work cut out for them and they certainly delivered.
Meet Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), an extremely caring and selfless young woman living in New York. Jess has agreed to act as a surrogate for her best friend, Josh (Chris Perfetti), and his husband, Aaron (Sullivan Jones). We start The Surrogate with the confirmation of her pregnancy and the following celebrations. When they are informed that the foetus that Jess is carrying has been diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, the three have to collectively decide their next step.
Oftentimes, there is a moral rift between the things we would like to believe about ourselves and what we would actually do when faced with the reality of a complex situation. In Jeremy Hersh’s The Surrogate, we are quickly thrown into the deep end and forced to ask ourselves the hard questions. Loyalties are questioned, friendships are put on the line, and most importantly, the characters’ veneer of moral integrity crumble when they find themselves stood at opposite ends of a tragic question.
Jasmine Batchelor’s performance of Jess, a deeply complex and troubled character, was absolutely phenomenal. Even starting to understanding the web of histories and backstories that clarify and justify her decisions is dizzying enough to watch, let alone perform! From a family of over-achievers, Jess is singled out as a character who cannot plan ahead, which is a barrier in her relationships and complicates her pregnancy. She also shows a painful tendency to put herself on the backburner while everyone makes decisions around her. We see her manage her own emotions on top of those of the ones she loves, she makes the phone calls, she does the research, and she dismisses the concerns of those who have her best interest at heart.
What I found most heartbreaking was the affectionate air of a chosen family being erased. Starting off with the unbridled elation from all three of them at the promise of a new family, we see the darkest aspects of each of the trio as they try (and often fail) to articulate their concerns and their decisions. The climactic arguments towards the end of the film are even a little tear-jerking when you see so much bitterness and resentment between characters who were inseparable just 40 minutes ago.
The underlying theme of intersectionality is fascinating in The Surrogate. Race, gender, class, and disability all have a strong presence in this film. Josh and Aaron are an interracial gay couple who simply want “what everybody else gets to have”: a fulfilling career, marriage, and a family. This pursuit is all well and good until Jess’s own conflicts get in the way of that goal. The gloves come off and what happens to Jess’s body can suddenly be dictated for their convenience. This isn’t to say that Jess’s own behaviour isn’t immensely inappropriate in places but Josh and Aaron shine a light on the willingness to disregard Jess’s concerns for the perfect family portrait.
This need for marginalised characters to blend in and get what everybody else has does not end with Josh and Aaron. Jess’s parents (played by Tonya Pinkins and Leon Addison Brown) cannot support her pregnancy due to the fear of their daughter falling into the ‘black single mother’ trope. However, the fallout of these conflicts is eventually a fire-throwing match of putting words in each other’s mouths and disrespecting boundaries. Watching Aaron caught in the crossfire in an argument about eugenics between his black friend and Jewish husband, it is clear that no easy solution is going to be achieved.
Watching a chosen family handle the same turbulence onscreen that you might see in a film centring on a conventional nuclear family is such a humanising and nuanced experience. Jeremy Hersh has left quite the mark on queer film and television and I can only hope to see such fresh and complex representation again.
The Surrogate is now out in UK cinemas. For more information and tickets, head here.