SXSW 2020: The Surrogate review – making the audience embrace a taxing moral dilemma

4

Summary

Jeremy Hersh’s grounded real-world drama asks the audience to consider different points of view in the middle of a complicated personal situation.

The Surrogate is a portrait of the immense strain on our personal relationships when faced with a complex moral dilemma. Josh and Aaron (Chris Perfetti and Sullivan Jones, respectively) are a couple who, along with their friend Jess, enjoy stable jobs and financial security within the realm of the Brooklyn job market, dressing as if they’ve just stepped off the set for an H&M photoshoot and enjoying brunches at hip spots that look like they were established for the sole purpose of gentrification. When Jess tests positive as successfully becoming Josh and Aaron’s surrogate carrier for their child, the trio couldn’t be happier to be bringing new life into the world while being in positions to be able to support it. 

The situation gets exceptionally more thorny and delicate when a prenatal test comes back with the results that the child has a 99% chance of being born with down syndrome. This revelation sends all parties involved on a difficult collective journey as Josh’s and Aaron’s feelings about having the baby begin to shift, along with Jess’s feelings about staying true to her friends’ wishes when it comes to aborting a baby just because of an extra chromosome.

With The Surrogate, director Jeremy Hersh has assembled a realistic and sobering investigation of a situation that pits humane morality against the supposed pragmatic alternative, seen through the lens of privilege and disenfranchisement alike. This is a grown-up drama about the moral and ethical responsibilities we bear as human beings while also trying to toe the line of respecting the wishes of those with stakes in the situation. When Josh and Aaron break the news to Jess about their rethinking of the baby, Jess rightfully calls them out for just wanting a child they can show off and who will have accomplishments to brag about instead of actually loving their child regardless of any disability. 

But Josh and Aaron have feelings and concerns that are legitimate as well, which Jess often conveniently chooses to look past in favor of being able to scold others on ableism (a noble cause, to be certain). When referring to a mother named Bridget (Brooke Bloom) the group met at a daycare for down syndrome children, Jess incredulously asks the potential fathers, “doesn’t she seem happy?”, to which Josh and Aaron flatly point out that no, she seemed exhausted. And it’s true: Bridget seems eternally exhausted and notably expresses the financial strain that has been thrust upon her and her husband.

However, Josh and Aaron’s relative financial security and privilege should also make them the perfect candidates to be able to take care of a down syndrome child, as Jess exasperatingly points out to them. This dialectic back-and-forth between the group is the crux of the film and is given a grounded authenticity by all the performers involved, each character being granted moments of undeniable validity and frustrating selfishness. At a point, Jess considers raising the child on her own which her mother staunchly refuses, so as to avoid her daughter becoming a stereotype of a single black mother right before she implies that eugenics is the only answer for down syndrome. It’s moments like these that make Jess’s ethos so compelling and virtuous, which in turn makes her refusal to acknowledge any of her friends’ anxieties as rational all the more difficult to reconcile. 

Hersh doesn’t give the audience a simple resolution because to do so would just be dishonest. The Surrogate is a film about the messy reality of our principles and our decisions, about the consequences of our actions, and about how we come to terms with each other in the face of such troubling predicaments. This is an expertly performed, realistically written character drama that asks the audience to consider the multitudes of external factors and ingrained attitudes that lead people to make tough decisions and to try to recognize the line within the foggy gray area between justifiable apprehension and being bad, uncaring people.

This review was filed from SXSW 2020. Check out all of our remote coverage from the festival.


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Trace Sauveur

Trace Sauveur has been a regular critic at Ready Steady Cut since March 2019.

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