SXSW Review: The Surrogate
At first glance, The Surrogate reads like a more diverse Noah Baumbach movie adapted for a world with Twitter. Jess, a successful, educated, black 29-year-old (Jasmine Batchelor), offers to act as a surrogate for her best friends, Aaron (Sullivan Jones) and Josh (Chris Perfetti). When testing reveals a 99% chance the baby will have Down Syndrome, the three become polar opposites, fleeing to their corners when confronted with their own privileges. At one point, Jess even claims that she doesn’t “mean to sound self-aggrandizing, but why am I alive if not to do something like this?” But for its first hour, The Surrogate transcends its headline-grabbing logline by acting primarily as an intimate portrait of the toll of physical and emotional surrogacy. Jess is not just carrying a baby; she also relentlessly burdens herself with the emotional baggage of her friends and family. She drags Josh to a local community center for children with Down Syndrome and their parents; she schedules a lunch date with a family from the center; she gets coffee and lets a middle-aged mother spew emotional catharsis about her son leaving the nest. At every turn, Jess shows up smiling, nodding her head, ready to tackle others’ problems with vigor. Director Jeremy Hersh wisely finds moments to pause on Jess, letting the uncertainty and insecurity briefly break through her specifically millennial outward confidence. Batchelor shines, packing the weight of the pressure she feels into every shaky smile. She uses a clingy ex-fling (Brandon Michael Hall) as a physical outlet, but otherwise The Surrogate slowly builds tension inside Jess as she uses conflict-avoidance tactics to delay an inevitable combustion. During this first hour, The Surrogate impressively layers in a simmering, incisive critique of liberal, millennial privilege. Jess works in web design for a non-profit providing education to incarcerated women, but consistently neglects her work, eventually telling her boss that she’s taking a leave of absence and near-demanding the ability to work remotely when she returns. The signals are there: a trans lives matter sign in her apartment and a spoken passion for progressive change; but the behavior belies them: most of Jess and her friends’ time is spent eating at fancy restaurants. A brilliant early scene shows the oblivious trio dragging a server into an argument over the check, culminating in the obligatory “we’re the worst” non-apology from Jess. Hersh wisely keeps this commentary in the backseat, retaining a focus on the personal relationships that devolve as each individual responds differently to confrontation with their own privilege. As Josh, Aaron, and Jess debate whether to bring a child with Down Syndrome into the world, the strain on their friendship lays bare its superficiality. But as things move forward, subtext becomes bold, all-caps text, and the personal relationships that anchored the movie become play-things, dependent on the satire’s whiplash-inducing swerves. Jess gets into a series of philosophical arguments with her parents and friends, and long speeches on eugenics, slavery and the holocaust, generational expectations, race, and privilege take the movie hostage. Where Hersh and the actors had worked to develop empathy with each character’s different perspectives, the final thirty minutes abandons that reality with overwrought caricature. At this point, even The Surrogate’s gentle, passionate advocacy for the Down Syndrome community fades almost completely into the background. The ultimate surrendering to its zeitgeist-y material should not take away from an otherwise tremendous feature debut. Hersh has an astounding ear for natural dialogue (a brief back-and-forth over beverage choice at a stranger’s house could not be better), and he builds domestic tension well, using blocking and silence with ease. Batchelor, Perfetti, and Jones bounce off each other with a practiced informality. And Hersh sympathetically renders a gay couple facing the same moral dilemmas that other couples have faced - a stated goal of his in making this film. The Surrogate has a lot to say. When it lets its humanity lead and its characters take the mic, it says it well.