Surrogate (2022)

“Just because somebody leaves us, it doesn’t mean they don’t love us,” Natalie Paxton (Kestie Morassi) tells her nine-year-old daughter Rose (Taysha Farrugia) some way into Surrogate. Nat is consoling Anna for the unexpected death of their beloved dog Indy, but her words might apply equally to Rose’s father, who disappeared from the picture before Rose was born – and it might equally apply to Nat’s own mother Anna (Louise Siversen), whose husband recently died, or to the film’s other mother Janet Bayer (Kate Cole), whose infant son Liam died in the bath and whose older daughter Lisa (Ellie Tevelis) vanished without trace, presumed abducted, some years ago.

  Indeed, loss pervades David Willing’s feature debut, co-written with Beth King. After an encounter late one evening with the strange, suicidal Margot (Jennifer Vuletic), Nat undergoes, overnight, a bizarre phantom pregnancy, which raises flags with doctors and family services about both Nat’s mental state and her suitability as a mother. It does not help that from this moment on, Rose starts displaying telltale bruises on her body. Rose may blame these injuries on a girl who she insists visits her room every night and pinches her, but dogged social worker Lauren Balmer (Jane Badler) suspects abuse from closer to home.

As others too around Nat start falling victim to accidents, and the peculiar goings on increase and intensify, Nat desperately turns to father-daughter psychics Malcolm and Ava Akard (Matthew Crosby, Ellie Stewart) for help in exorcising the Paxton household of whatever supernatural entity has taken up residence there, and engages in her own haphazard investigation. But is Nat being haunted by a nasty, needy spirit, or is it the return of her depression that is making her very proximity to Rose so dangerous? 

“Honey, there’s no such thing as monsters,” Nat reassures Rose early in Surrogate as she puts her to bed. Nat is not only a devoted mother but, as a nurse, also caring by profession – although the way in which, while doing locum work at a clinic in smalltown Borden, Nat dismisses repeated requests for help from the muttering, obviously disturbed Margot shows that Nat’s kindness has its limits, and that, when unwatched, she is capable of callous neglect – or perhaps that any obvious mental illness in others repels her because it mirrors what she fears in herself. 

The psychic Ava Akard (Ellie Stewart) between two mirrors and two worlds

When little Ava contacts spirits from the other side, she uses two mirrors, one which reveals benign spirits, the other evil ones. Nat will see a ghostly girl in the latter, as well as herself – and even as we observe Nat’s close, loving relationship with Rose, we also witness a far more dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship superimposing itself on theirs, like a monster under the bed or a shadow glimpsed through a glass darkly – and it is left to us to determine which of these two relationships more closely reflects the truth. 

Boasting a suitably Herrmann-esque score from Mark Buys, Surrogate tells of mothers and daughters, good and bad, and the ambiguous crawlspaces between and beneath them where secrets are hidden and skeletons are buried. And while Willing’s film presents itself as a creepily insidious ghost story, it is also a harrowing psychodrama, with maternal love, both real and phantom, being tested to its otherworldly limits.

strap: Phantom pregnancy: David Willing’s psychodrama/ghost story tests the limits of a single mother’s love

© Anton Bitel