Choosing can be a challenge. Especially when the choice impacts not only your life, but the lives of others.
That’s the issue explored in The Surrogate, an earnest and thought-provoking drama originally scheduled to debut at this year’s canceled SXSW Film Festival.
Writer-director Jeremy Hersh’s feature debut boasts a provocative premise and persuasive performances that keep the movie moving whenever it threatens to get stuck in the quagmire of a moral quandary.
Which is a bit too often for its own good, but the moral quandary is compelling enough to keep The Surrogate plugging along.
We first meet the title character, Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), as she’s attempting to dissuade an ardent admirer (Brandon Micheal Hall) from reading too much into whatever’s between them.
“I don’t know where I’m going to be a year from now,” she explains. “Maybe I’ll teach English abroad or join the Peace Corps.”
Or maybe she’ll have a baby — with Josh (Chris Perfetti), her best friend from college. And Josh’s husband, attorney Aaron (Sullivan Jones).
All three rejoice in the joyous development — until prenatal testing reveals that the baby Jess is carrying for Josh and Aaron undoubtedly will be born with Down Syndrome.
This news understandably comes as a shock, but as a dedicated social justice warrior, Jess is determined to take positive action.
She visits a neighborhood community center for special-needs kids and bonds not only with little Leon (Leon Lewis) but his mother Bridget (Brooke Bloom), hoping their obviously loving lives will reassure Josh and Aaron about their baby’s future.
But Josh and Aaron aren’t so sure. Neither is Jess’ mother (Tonya Pinkins), a high-powered, high-expectations academic who doesn’t want her daughter sacrificing herself — and her future — in favor of motherhood. Particularly when Jess is only the surrogate, not the actual parent.
Once Hersh sets up The Surrogate’s central conflict, the movie focuses primarily on Jess and her growing attachment to the growing baby.
That’s a potentially tricky approach, considering that The Surrogate’s title character risks alienating others — including those of us in the audience — because she’s so darn convinced she’s always occupying the moral high ground.
Fortunately, Batchelor’s energy and charm help counteract her character’s preachier aspects, making Jess a more sympathetic, less off-putting presence than she might be otherwise be.
As a result, her plight — and, by extension, The Surrogate itself — seems more gripping than grating.