There is something uniquely theatrical in writer/director Jeremy Hersh’s intimate film, The Surrogate. This insightful story unfolds almost as if you were watching a play with the highly professional acting associated with that art form. The characters are totally developed, supporting the believable, excellent dialogue. The well-honed script presents a penetrating look at the struggle between three friends who are faced with an ethical and perhaps even a moral dilemma.
Jess, exquisitely brought to life by a very talented Jasmine Batchelor is best friends with Josh, tenderly played by Chris Perfetti, and his husband Aaron, well played by Sullivan Jones. They want to have a baby and Jess has agreed to be the egg donor and surrogate. The dipstick turned pink and they are jubilant that she tested positive and a new life has begun. They have agreed to cover all the attendant expenses to having their baby and the three of them are delighted. Jess continues her work as a web designer for a local non-profit and it seems all is well. There are lots of fun dinners, yoga classes, laughter, and great excitement over the arrival of the baby. All is well until they receive some unsettling news. After the third month, the prenatal test is positive for Down syndrome and thus begins a painful decision journey for the three friends. Jess wants more information and the three of them go to a community center that specializes in working with Down children. It appears to be a happy place and the children are engaged in all sorts of activities. There Jess meets young, really adorable Leon, beautifully played by Down actor Leon Lewis, and his devoted mother Bridget, excellently played by Brooke Bloom. Jess asks if she could visit their home. Bridget says yes and invites her for dinner during which she shares her experiences in raising her child, some of which are quite challenging. Leon is reasonably verbal and cheerfully responds to whatever instructions he receives from his mom. Back at Josh and Aaron’s apartment in Williamsburg Brooklyn, the guys are clearly conflicted and are having second thoughts on the prospects of raising a Down child, citing what they perceive to be the on-going attendant costs. With much sadness, they tell her that they decided they don’t want to have the child and ask her to abort the fetus and, at the moment, she agrees. To find a temporary respite from the horrible choice that lies before her, Jess has sex with her old boyfriend Nate, a really sweet guy characterized by Brandon Micheal Hall. He wants to marry her and says he will be supportive of whatever she decides, whether her decision is to abort or not to abort, in which case he would help her raise the child. At 29 years of age, and apparently commitment phobic, Jess doesn’t want to get married or even have a steady boyfriend. After giving it a great deal of thought, she decides that she does not want to abort and goes to her mother, Karen (Tonya Pinkins) to seek $100,000 from the trust fund left by her grandparents and would use the funds to buy a house for she and the baby. With a Masters Degree from Columbia, her mom patiently points out the pitfalls of raising a special needs child and refuses the request. She defends herself pointing out all the money she donates to charities with Jess shooting back that such generosity was to “assuage guilt for living a privileged life.” In the meantime, Josh and Aaron are under the impression that she is going to have an abortion. The day before the scheduled procedure, Jess goes back to her friends to try to reason with them, saying they could co-parent the child, but Josh has an unpleasant memory from his childhood of a Down kid named Devon and doesn’t want that for his child. In a heartfelt plea, he tries to explain that being a gay married couple was hard enough which is why they want to at least have a normal kid. She doesn’t commit one way or the other and moves in with her loving sister Samantha, sympathetically played by Eboni Booth.
The guys visit Jess at her sister’s house and propose that instead of aborting the child that they put it up for adoption. At that point, Jess gets angry and refuses that suggestion telling them she is going to have the child and that they will never be allowed to visit. Still there is the slightest question mark as to what action she will ultimately undertake and we are left with a lovely cliffhanger.
The Surrogate, which is director Hersh’s first feature, is a pitch perfect, fascinating, well-crafted, highly intelligent film. His narrative does not take a moral position on abortion and allows each of his characters to make his or her own case, as to abort or not to abort, in non-diatribe, non-exploitative, crisp dialogue, with valid points of view. Enhancing this captivating, excellent movie with his extremely fine theatre trained acting ensemble, is his production crew starting with Mia Cioffi Henry’s sensitive cinematography, D’Vaughn Agu’s delicate production design, culminating with Cecilia Delgado’s spot-on editing, all working together for this absorbing 93-minute Indy film which can be viewed through the Vimeo on Demand platform.