There’s a moment in Jeremy Hersh’s feature directorial debut The Surrogate where a heated argument devoid of any correct answers reaches the inevitable question: “Where do you draw the line?” It’s the corner in which we all find ourselves when forced to confront what Hersh calls “the gap between ideals and practical realities.” Because even if we refuse to create such barriers when thinking about topics in the abstract, we’re often very quick to erect them at the exact moment an issue concerns us personally. Maybe it will reveal the truth of our behind-closed-doors hypocrisy. Maybe it will expose us as a monster. Or, like in the case of Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), it will shine a light upon our righteousness. Humanity’s enduring fallibility will be confirmed either way.
And that’s a good thing. It’s through our imperfections that we remain human. It’s through our mistakes that we learn. So why have our lives become inextricably entrenched in unhealthy notions of objective victory? In America especially we’ve allowed ourselves to be governed by numbers whether explicitly (SAT scores as a means of weeding out applicants without having to go the extra mile of interviewing someone that might be a viable candidate regardless) or implicitly (the socio-economic shortcomings provided by a system built to keep minorities under foot of a wealthy white “elite”). We aspire towards a “normal” life to the point of blind assimilation in order to be included and ultimately combat historical injustice by altering who we are instead of dismantling the structure demanding we compromise.
This is what Jess thinks her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones) are doing when the trio is given the news that the child she’s caring to term for them has a 99% chance of being born with Down syndrome. It’s news they wouldn’t have even been able to know half a century ago and yet now it risks tearing their lives apart once their respective decisions on whether to terminate the pregnancy are vocalized and unavoidably scrutinized for the precedent set and the exploitative power possessed within. Where’s the line between worrying about the child’s quality of life and your own raising him/her? Where’s the line between having the choice to abort and believing that choice shares DNA with eugenics?
Whether located smack dab in the middle or pushed closer to an edge, though, those lines do exist for each and every one of us. We simply hope we never have to discover where they are. We hope we can stay on the outside and trade in “what ifs” from afar because it’s easier to speculate about our reaction intellectually than experience it emotionally. This is why Jess’ mother (Tonya Pinkins’ Karen) can stay calm when finding everything out. In that initial scenario, this child will be a peripheral object in their lives. It’s therefore an involuntary response to agree that its life matters. As soon as the prospect arises that Jess might be raising this child on her own as her own, however, it becomes a liability.
Credit Hersh for his ability to ensure nobody is sainted. If he positioned Jess as a bastion of morality he would have only undercut the situation’s complexity and thus rendered her internal turmoil moot. We need her to conversely be sanctimonious because we need her contrast to the more “callous” end of the spectrum to remain flawed. We need her to recognize how the choice to keep the baby in large part because others would dispose of it purely in response to its extra chromosome is equally problematic. She’d be taking a stand not for love (the film makes it clear that she’s always been a vessel and accordingly not maternally involved), but for advocacy. Where then is the line between that and the Pro-Life rhetoric she abhors?
So we get two sides to every coin. There’s the pragmatic parent in Karen who refuses to see how she’s become that which she fought so tirelessly against to be a successful Black woman in America versus the compassionate sister in Samantha (Eboni Booth) who loves Jess too much to not be supportive of whatever choice is made. There’s the mother of a DS son (Meg Gibson’s Sandra) who considers him an angel for how much raising him changed who she was (a privileged, religious-based viewpoint bordering on zealotry) versus the tired mother (Brooke Bloom’s Bridget) who refuses to sugar-coat what her life has become or say aloud what we can see in her eyes: that given the opportunity, she might not choose to have her son again.
We can see that same discomfort in everyone who’s too afraid to speak their truth because they know how it will sound despite also knowing there’s no way they’ll ever change their mind. Both Josh and Aaron are handled with authentic nuance by Perfetti and Jones to awkwardly project an unwavering politeness whenever Jess steamrolls them with an optimism they can’t afford to let cloud their judgment as the men who will ultimately be raising the child. They can’t look on the bright side when reality is saying it can’t work. Should we vilify them for that decision? No. The last thing this child needs are parents who will resent him/her because they felt societal pressure to take on a responsibility they knew was too much.
Jess might be vilifying them anyway, but Batchelor does a wonderful job expressing just how much of the character’s actions are born from within. She’s fighting against a mother who put undo pressure on her to be perfect, a non-profit job that stifles her creativity, and an ablest society steeped in conservative ideals of family and success that floods over her now that she’s peeked behind a curtain often overshadowed by issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Jess is therefore projecting that anger onto others who are struggling to reconcile those very same things themselves. The result can be frustratingly militant in its desire to show all angles of its central conflict (and how it sparks others), but the questions it makes us ask ourselves are worth it.
The Surrogate will be opening in virtual cinemas nationwide on June 12.