Review by Sean Boelman
While the feature debut of writer-director Jeremy Hersh, The Surrogate, may not be one of the most cinematic films to be featured as a part of this year’s SXSW lineup, it is likely to be one of the most incendiary and divisive. Exploring its core ethical dilemma in a thought-provoking and surprisingly light-handed way, this movie proves that Hersh is a talent to watch.
The film follows a young woman serving as the surrogate for her best friend and his husband when they receive a prenatal test that sends them into a moral debate with each other. Part of what makes this movie so effective is that it is so streamlined and focused. Hersh wastes no time on subplots, instead focusing entirely on the protagonist’s main struggle.
Clocking in at a little over an hour and a half, Hersh’s film is absolutely gripping because it is consistently tense. Even though the movie’s stakes aren’t traditionally high, Hersh is able to make the narrative feel important and urgent because of the emotional weight the storyline has. Additionally, Hersh’s dialogue feels very strong and naturalistic, pushing the film along.
Of course, the movie takes a very clear stance on the political issue at the core of the film, and while it likely won’t change any opinions in either direction, it is an important way of bringing the discussion into the mainstream. The movie addresses the argument on the opposite end of the spectrum in a way that is surprisingly level-headed and fair.
Arguably Hersh’s biggest success with the film is that he develops the characters very well. Despite the fact that they do some unlikable things as their relationship gets strained, the three main characters are all very compelling. Hersh does a wonderful job of expressing all of their perspectives in a balanced way.
Jasmine Batchelor plays the movie’s lead, and she is phenomenal. It’s hard to believe that this is her first role in a film (all of her prior work having been in television), because she plays the character with so much subtlety. The two main supporting actors are Chris Perfetti and Sullivan Jones, and both do a good job of complementing Batchelor, especially Perfetti, who shines in a couple very powerful scenes.
On a technical level, Hersh’s movie is very straightforward but still quite effective. Here the focus is on the script in performances, making the film feel rather play-like. Much of the movie is shot in long takes or sequences with as little movement as possible, from both the camera and the editor. The result is that it is easy to get drawn into the film’s emotion.
The Surrogate may be a simple movie in nature, but that doesn’t keep it from being a fascinating watch. Thanks to a brilliant script and some inspired performances, this is a film that deserves to be in the conversation for a long time.
The Surrogate was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.