by Robbie Jones
Jeremy Hersh’s directorial debut centres on Jessica (Jasmine Batchelor), a graphic designer for a non-profit organisation who is unhappy with her position in life. Things are turned around suddenly when her best friends Josh (Chris Perfetti) and Aaron (Sullivan Jones) ask her to be the surrogate for their child. All is going well until the 13 week mark, where the trio learn that the child will be born with Down’s Syndrome. From there, they are forced to look at their options and potentially make a difficult decision.
For all it’s flaws, The Surrogate brings up a lot of difficult points and doesn’t shy away from them; it’s opening a conversation about the ethics of a bringing a child into the world knowing full well they have Down’s Syndrome, and the difficulties both them and the child will face in doing so. It doesn’t do this flippantly nor does it stick to one side as the characters interact with parents and children to get a feel for what this life is like, looking to oppose the attitudes throw against children with disabilities that treat them as being lesser. At the same time, it takes a look at the physical, mental and financial toll raising a child like this can have on a person. All these elements are carefully considered, they just aren’t presented in a very informative or engaging way, but the effort to put it all out there should not go unappreciated.
One thing it does tackle quite well, however, is the fine line that Jessica walks between performative and genuine in her approach to standing up for others. As the film progresses, Jessica becomes more invested in the child and finds herself throwing questions and accusations at others for their attitudes towards not only her child, but disabled people in general. Even when she seems like she’s on the right side, she gets questioned for how much she truly cares or how much she’s putting on for show, or what she’s ignoring to take her righteous stance, and it provides a nice balance to the film.
All of those attempts are admirable, but The Surrogate truly falls apart as a film. The leading actors do a fine job of their roles but they’re severely let down by the screenplay and direction; these characters, from the beginning of the film all the way to the end, do not once feel lived in. It’s one of those films where every scene feels like someone has just said it’s time to start shooting, and everyone arrives on set to deliver their lines. It feels like the same performance every time, as a result of a total lack of depth in either the writing or the direction. The film and the characters just don’t progress naturally as a result of this. It slows the pacing down tremendously, making the story a slog to get through.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the film, however, is the editing; the first 13 weeks of Jessica’s pregnancy are zipped through, with cuts and edits that feel totally careless. No scene ever feels like it’s actually finished or come to a natural conclusion, something that burdens the entire film but is most noticeable in the first 13 weeks as the film races to get to the moral dilemma. It’s understandable to want to get to that point as soon as possible, but when we know or feel so little for Jessica in that time, it’s hard to invest her at the point where things get difficult. These characters deserve a lot more attention and fleshing out, and the film needed to not try and smash through these events as fast as they could. It’s what makes the lack of subtlety so jarring later in the film, when a scene feels like it exists to throw some buzzwords out and then carry on. It didn’t a need a “show, don’t tell” policy that so many people insist on when it comes to films, but it did need more time to consider the words/actions of the characters and let them sink in before carrying on.
The Surrogate is tackling ethical issues head on and it can’t be knocked for trying that, but weak filmmaking and an inability to discuss the issues in a meaningful or informative way bring it down tremendously.
The Surrogate will be releasing in select UK cinemas from today