Jess would like everyone to be comfortable. That means everyone, from her distant boss who doesn’t seem eager to develop Jess’s passion projects to the well-meaning waitress who casually tosses off a comment that’s perhaps not exactly racist, but certainly rooted in prejudiced thinking. She’d like her mother, whipsmart but not always aware of the weight of her words, to be comfortable. She’d like her ex-boyfriend, eager to please but not receptive to Jess’s wishes, to be comfortable. Her best friends, who have asked Jess to serve as a surrogate to their baby, she’d definitely like them to be comfortable, too. Jess? Her comfort comes second to everyone else, hell, maybe even third.
In Jeremy Hersh’s smart moral drama “The Surrogate,” Jess’s bent towards accommodating others is pushed into extreme perimeters, but the microbudget feature never wavers from lived-in believability. As Jess, Jasmine Batchelor (the film marks her first starring role in a film, the actress also produced it) turns in one of the year’s best performances, profound work that twists an already propulsive concept into a riveting character study. While Hersh’s film, only his first feature, doesn’t quite stick the landing, its path through thorny questions and seemingly unanswerable dilemmas makes for a thought-provoking, well-crafted watch.
Hersh, who also wrote the film’s tightly scripted screenplay, drops his audience into what will become a defining experience for Jess early on: while out on a decidedly platonic date with her ex Nate (Brandon Michael Hall), an unexpected phone call rocks Jess’ seemingly untethered world. Soon enough, she’s barely holding her breath in a Brooklyn bathroom, waiting for the results of a pregnancy test that will forever change both Jess and the two would-be fathers (Chris Perfetti and Sullivan Jones) who have enlisted her as their surrogate.
“We are being very by the book,” Jess promises her sister (Eboni Booth) and mother (Tonya Pinkins), as she details the arrangement between her and her two closest male friends: no contracts (just a couple of lawyers and an “arrangement”), but all the hope in the world. As precisely played by Batchelor, Jess is unquestionably a good person, but one prone to acquiescing to others to keep the peace, to step aside when things get too weird, to drop important things when the going gets too rough. She is, in many ways, a vessel, and that Josh (Perfetti) and Aaron (Jones) have picked her for this task is as much a product of how she acts as who she is. But the friction is apparent early on, and Jess’ eventual discovery of her autonomy will play out in ways no one could see coming.
Never predictable, but always grounded, “The Surrogate” hums pleasantly along — prenatal yoga, happy dinners together, the giddy possibility of the future — until a surprising diagnosis forces Jess to suddenly remember that this, all of this, is happening to her, too. Hersh and his cast steadily ratchet up the tension, squeezing into increasingly claustrophobic real-world locations (every apartment, every restaurant, every street seems pulled out of Jess’s real life), as Jess, Josh, and Aaron dance around some big questions.
Jess’s blind optimism obscures what soon becomes fairly obvious to the audience: whatever plans she has for the baby are not the plans that Josh and Aaron have for it anymore. As Jess endeavors to, again, make everyone as comfortable as possible in the midst of a situation that can only feel terribly invasive, Batchelor begins to interrogate the fraying aspects of her remarkable character. The folding in of a series of compelling supporting characters, including Brooke Bloom in a textured performance as a woman whose advice Jess seeks out (perhaps improperly), only adds to Jess’s growth and the film’s sly power.
Played by anyone else, Jess might read as cloying, even intrusive, but Batchelor finds a well of empathy in Jess. Her attempts to navigate her way through a story that has no easy answers allow both Hersh and Batchelor to explore even more questions, including issues of racism, privilege, and financial security. Rooted in Batchelor’s transformative performance, these questions feel urgent and necessary, never shoehorned in to bolster a production modest enough to feel like a stage play.
Mostly, though, “The Surrogate” is fascinating to watch because it’s never clear where it — or Jess — will go next, even as nearly every narrative choice Hersh makes feels wholly understandable. Batchelor anchors Jess even in the most prickly of situations (a pair of final act scenes in which her eager-to-please demeanor crack under great stress are both electric and uncomfortable), and forces everyone to move far away from their comfort zones, for the better.
Monument Releasing film will release “The Surrogate” in virtual cinemas on Friday, June 12.