SXSW Film Review: The Surrogate is a realistic drama unafraid to be uncomfortable

*The AU Review will continue with its planned SXSW 2020 coverage.  We have been in contact with the respective representatives for available films in order to give them the coverage they intended.

Detailing a tragic situation with a sobering, uncomfortable realism that has the potential to test even the most patient of viewers, The Surrogate asks questions of the privileged that they may not be ready to willingly answer.

It all starts off so happily though, with the headstrong Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) confirming that she will successfully carry as a surrogate for her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his partner Aaron (Sullivan Jones).  The trio are the picture of Brooklyn chic – an interracial couple, their coloured surrogate, all readily attired in a wardrobe that H&M would approve of – but writer/director Jeremy Hersh never allows their happiness to longer longer than it needs to.

When a prenatal test comes back with the results that the couple’s baby has a 99% chance of being born with down syndrome, reality sets in for each of them, with their outlook on their own happiness and future manifesting in opposing fashions.  Josh and Aaron’s thoughts on having the baby understandably shift, and though Jess confirms that she understands their hesitation – they cite financial struggles as a major reason for their uncertainty – she wrestles with her own emotions regarding their wishes to abort.

The dilemma at the core of The Surrogate is one that Hersh has structured in a very adult manner.  Due to Josh and Aaron’s evident privilege regarding their financial stability they would seem to be the ideal candidates to take care of a down syndrome child – something Jess quite exhaustingly points out to them.  And as much as it stings to hear Josh plead that he just wants his child to be “normal”, there’s no malice in his cries, as he as a gay man can relate to the struggles that someone deemed as different from the majority of society will go through.

As much as the narrative is fuelled by Josh and Aaron’s unborn child, it’s Jess that is the film’s focus, with Batchelor infusing the character with a passion and a self-righteousness that is at once understandable and incredibly frustrating.  Jess does all she can to try and allow Josh and Aaron to see how rewarding having a child with down syndrome could be, but it’s in her forceful nature that she ironically distances the couple further; Jess hopes that introducing them to a local mother (Brooke Bloom) whose son has down syndrome will act as a type of catalyst for them to reconsider; “Doesn’t she seem happy” Jess so optimistically asks, to which Josh and Aaron flatly respond that she seems exhausted more than anything, an observation that’s certainly difficult to deny.

As frustratingly selfish the characters might be – Jess, in particular, is the type of character whose defiance could easily grate viewers – there’s an expertise on view as to how they’re embodied.  And thanks to realistic writing, The Surrogate oft feels like a fly-on-the-wall docu-experience as the principles and messy decisions made throughout feel incredibly organic.  This is a film that isn’t afraid to be imperfect as it respects the line between someone’s justification in their own apprehension and their self-aware egotism.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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