As we get back into the cinema habit, it’s almost unseemly to hark back to spring of last year when streaming services were the only way of watching new releases. But bear with me. It also meant that smaller, indie films received a level of exposure that probably wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances, and some of them were real gems. One was Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, a realistic but sensitive look at the minefield that is the American abortion law from director Eliza Hittman. The Surrogate, in selected cinemas this Friday, is on similar issue-driven territory – and makes you wish Hittman had got her hands on it.
Web-designer Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) is in her late 20s and close friends with Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones). When the couple decide they want to start a family, Jess agrees to be their surrogate and her pregnancy brings elation, with all three over the moon at the thought of the life they’ve created and what the future holds for all of them. But that changes when a test indicates the baby has Down’s Syndrome and those dreams, hopes and plans coming crashing to the ground. With all of them facing a critical decision, Jess arranges a visit to a community centre which runs playgroups for children with Down’s in the hope that it will help them find a way forward. But, as she becomes increasingly drawn into the world of parenting a child with the condition, it becomes clear that Josh and Aaron aren’t of the same mind.
The issues are profound. Surrogacy, abortion and disability and, taken together, they present an interesting and complex moral quandary. But, with a script that makes its viewpoint overly clear and which positions itself almost aggressively on the moral highground, none of them are explored in sufficient depth. They’re simply not allowed to, even though there’s an extensive debate to be had. Much of the problem lies with the characterisation of Jess who constantly reassures the couple that she’s in their corner, whatever they decide. It’s at odds with what we see – her almost confrontational insistence that people should know she’s a surrogate and her attempts to railroad Josh and Aaron into a decision, one they clearly don’t want. Hers is the character we’re meant to connect with emotionally but such is her attitude that she, and the script, gives the film a decidedly preachy tone. It’s uncomfortable.
Made in a docu-drama style, with minimal soundtrack and distractingly shaky handheld camerawork, the narrative is structured almost like a pregnancy diary, but without dates or sub-titles. And while the intimate settings attempt to bring us closer to the characters – and the actual children we meet are endearingly unfazed by the nearby cameras and crew – it’s all scuppered by the dominance of Jess’s personality, which stubbornly stands in the way of the other characters, or their viewpoints, being fully developed.
The potential for a thought-provoking, emotional piece of cinema is all here, but the sad fact is that it never gets close to reaching its potential. The Surrogate asks lots of questions but, instead of giving you the chance to think them through, it hits you over the head with its answers to all of them and doesn’t give alternative options much of a look-in. It’s no way to draw in an audience.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Studio Soho Distribution | Cinemas | 9 July 2021 | Dir. Jeremy Hersch | Jasmine Batchelor, Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones, Brooke Bloom.