What: The Surrogate
When & how much: There are no further screenings of this film scheduled during the Adelaide Film Festival, but keep an eye out for other festivals or a wider release
**This review contains some spoilers for The Surrogate (2020)**
In my early undergraduate years, I wrote a research essay on gestational surrogacy for a summer school class on human rights. Wading through the literature, I often felt conflicted. Surrogacy is one of those sticky issues with many grey areas, where so much depends on people, circumstances, and chance. Perhaps you would be happy to see a sister lovingly and altruistically carrying a pregnancy for her sibling who cannot, but what about an economically vulnerable young woman in the Global South lending her uterus to a comparatively wealthy couple from Australia or the US in order to pay off her family’s debts? And what happens when the individuals involved in the arrangement come to disagree on fundamental decisions about the pregnancy or the resulting child? The Surrogate, the first full-length feature from writer and director Jeremy Hersh, sensitively explores some of the complexities of gestational surrogacy and how these intersect with disability, race, sexuality, and class.*
Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) is a middle-class Black woman living in New York City and working as a “glorified social media manager” at a not-for-profit helping incarcerated women. She’s overjoyed to be acting as a gestational surrogate for her “best friends” Josh (Chris Perfetti) and Aaron (Sullivan Jones), an affluent interracial gay couple. Possible complications are hinted at early, when Jess’s mother (Tonya Pinkins), a dean at Yale University, expresses skepticism that Jess isn’t being paid for her gestational labour – but Jess insists that she is “not doing this for money” and is just happy to be helping her friends create their family. She cheerfully tells a woman in her yoga class that “anyone could do this” – “this” being to carry a baby and give it up to be raised by someone else.
Jess, Josh and Aaron are obviously close – they spend a lot of time together and are physically and emotionally affectionate. Nevertheless, some of the choreography of early scenes seems to hint at the fragmentation to come, as the three characters frequently sit awkwardly around a table with two people on one side and one person alone on the other, or when Jess announces she is pregnant and is quickly pushed to one side as Josh and Aaron kiss. Their arrangement starts to unravel during a routine medical appointment early in Jess’s pregnancy, when the doctor reveals that the foetus has tested positive for Down syndrome.
Jess takes the announcement in her stride. She reads books, attends a community centre program for children with Down syndrome, and strikes up friendships with the parents there. Josh, by contrast, is clearly very upset, recalling a childhood friend’s brother with Down syndrome who was socially withdrawn and died at a young age. Aaron doesn’t have much to say initially, though there are hints that he and Josh are having heated conversations when Jess isn’t there. Eventually, Josh and Aaron decide to terminate the pregnancy, citing financial concerns. Jess is accepting in the moment, but as the abortion appointment looms, she finds herself questioning whether she can go through with it. Surely there must be some way to have the baby and make it work?
Batchelor, Jones, and Pinkins are all veterans of the stage, and The Surrogate feels like it would work well as a play: the narrative hangs primarily on ideas, dialogue and characters, with little need for fancy camera work or locations. The performances are excellent, especially from Batchelor as the emotional heart of the film. As an aside, I did find it interesting how little the film focused on the physical experience of surrogacy, with Jess’s (admittedly early stage) pregnancy treated more as an idea than as an embodied reality – she does mention nausea once or twice, but it’s unclear whether this is just an excuse.** The screenplay is also very good, handling incredibly complex and upsetting topics with subtlety and emotional weight. The Surrogate is not necessarily an easy film to watch, precisely because the important questions it raises will stay with viewers for a long time, but it is certainly an impressive debut feature.
* If you’ve seen the film or are interested in exploring some of these issues further, there are a couple of interesting interviews with Jeremy Hersh discussing the genesis and development of The Surrogate available online. (1) (2)
**I admit that I have never been pregnant myself, so this comment is based on an understanding of others’ experiences rather than my own.