“The Surrogate” is the kind of movie you’d expect to be based on a stage play, because it is so entirely driven by well-honed dialogue arguing social issues from nicely detailed if schematically conceived character viewpoints — like something by Donald Margulies, Rebecca Gilman or the pseudononymous Jane Martin. That writer-director Jeremy Hersh’s debut feature is a screen original surprises, not because it’s “stagy” (though he has written plays), but because its engagingly argumentative virtues aren’t typical for movies anymore, if they ever were.
This indie drama about a young African American woman who agrees to become pregnant for her gay interracial-couple best friends, and the fallout when that arrangement unravels, touches vividly on numerous hot ethical and identity-politics topics without sermonizing in any direction. It’s an engrossing, very well-acted (primarily by New York stage talent, naturally) tale that will need viewer word of mouth to get the audience this “virtual theater” release deserves, given a lack of marquee names behind or before the camera.
Bubbly Brooklynite Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) is still young enough for her inability to commit in various relationships to seem formative and questing, rather than a serious character flaw. She works as the IT person at a worthy nonprofit, yet often has to apologize to her boss for the results of scattered personal focus. She’s seeing the patient, flexible, enamored Nate (Brandon Micheal Hall) on and off, but fends off even steady-dating status, let alone his marriage proposals. Nonetheless, she’s agreed — to the surprise of many, including her family — to bear a child for her besties, gay couple Josh (Chris Perfetti) and Aaron (Sullivan Jones). At the film’s start, she discovers she’s pregnant, to everyone’s joy.
But at “The Surrogate’s” 10-minute mark, the trio gets more sobering news: The fetus tests positive for Down syndrome. They address this hugely complicating factor in the short term by studying up on the subject and visiting a local special-needs school. There, they meet two mothers who’ve coped in contrasting ways: Bridget (Brooke Bloom), whose son Leon (Leon Lewis) is still just a child, has a nose-to-the-grindstone demeanor that makes no bones about the fact that this particular parenting burden is exhaustingly demanding. On the other hand, older Sandra (Meg Gibson), her adult son now out of the house, spouts borderline-delusional-sounding happy talk about how she continues to “learn so much” from his challenges.
Jess processes this preliminary research through rose-colored glasses, choosing to see only solutions and fortunate exceptions. But Aaron and Josh grow fearful that they may not have the financial, emotional or other means to cope with a DS child’s heightened care requirements. There’s still plenty of time for Jess to have an abortion, which she agrees to. Then she doesn’t — in ways she’s not entirely clear about, this unborn baby originally meant for others fills some longing she didn’t know she had. But logistically speaking, she is even worse-equipped to handle the burden than her friends. And their reaction to her obstinacy is nothing compared to that of family members who think she’s plain crazy to consider raising a “special” child as a single parent of shaky means.
Though at times the articulacy with which its characters debate issues — from “choice” to social privilege to the dread specter of eugenics — borders on didacticism, “The Surrogate” is too dramatically savvy to fall off that cliff. There’s a welcome complexity to the relationship and individuals here that makes them relatable, with some useful gaps left for our imaginations to fill in.
In Batchelor’s compelling lead performance, good intentions jostle against self-deception. The pathos of Jess’ unstated but overwhelming maternal needs stir empathy even when her actions exasperate everyone around her. Among numerous sharply drawn exchanges, she has particularly revealing confrontations with Bloom’s Bridget, a reluctant helpmate who won’t be pushed farther than she’s comfortable, and her own mother Karen (Tonya Pinkins), who reads Jess the riot act while her husband (Leon Addison Brown) plays referee.
It would have been easy for “The Surrogate” to become a series of staged position papers debating the rights of the disabled (and unborn), the hierarchy of blacks vs. gays as societal underclasses, etc. It’s to Hersh’s credit as both writer and director that this garrulous but always psychologically plausible tale never turns into that kind of dramatized abstract. Its characters may illuminate a number of thorny issues, but they never exist just to illustrate them.
Though inevitably this talk-driven story doesn’t lend itself to the most wildly cinematic execution, Hersh achieves sufficient fluidity, with strong assists from DP Mia Cioffi Henry’s thoughtful camerawork, D’Vaughn Agu’s nuanced production design and Cecilia Delgado’s deft editing. Going without any backing score was a savvy decision that subtly underlines the overall tension between nice people increasingly at odds with one another’s wishes.