‘Milkwater’ Tackles the Heavy Topic of Gay Surrogacy With Wit and Heart
Milkwater — Morgan Ingari’s feature directorial debut — is yet another iteration of the surrogate mother / babydaddy indie film. If it’s not quite as richly observed as the recent Together Together, it does offer a wonderfully grounded performance for Younger’s Molly Bernard in the difficult role of the aimless Milo, and a fully rounded supporting turn by Patrick Breen as Roger, a bar-owner/drag performer Milo meets randomly one night when her gay bestie abandons her for his latest Tinder hookup.
That’s the set-up, which Ingari lays before us without fuss, and it’s a relief that her direction is simple and effective, because Milo — surrounded by friends evaporating from her life as they enter their child-bearing years — is one of those anxious characters that audiences love and hate in equal measure. She’s self-possessed to a fault, yet blind to her own casual inconsiderateness to her dwindling circle of friends, including gay BFFs George (Robin de Jesus) and Noor (Ava Eisenson), the pregnant half of a lesbian couple. After spending an evening with Roger, distraught from the failure of another potential surrogate, Milo spontaneously offers to become his surrogate. He rationally turns her down, but the idea sparks the aimless, unfulfilled young woman to convince the middle-aged man that she might be his last, best hope for fatherhood.
“Morgan wrote a character that in one moment you’re so annoyed by her and you’re like, what the fuck are you doing?!,” Bernard has said about her Milkwater character. “Then the next moment you realize, out of nowhere, that you love her. I realized that in order to play this part I had to love her so that she can grow up a little bit before your eyes, and in the hour and a half that you watch the film she has to go through a big enough journey. You watch her struggle and you cringe, and then you watch her make some good decisions and you’re like, okay, girl! Good girl! You want to root for her.”
Milo is, to put it mildly, a mess. She’s one of the many descendants of the prototypical Woody Allen antagonist, an updated Annie Hall with all the emotional neediness of a Liza Minnelli heroine. Roger is, at first, beguiled and grateful for the generosity of this new person in his orbit, but as they attempt to delineate the parameters of their “relationship” he grows more detached and defensive. For Milo, her act of kindness is a need to feel as if she’s accomplished something in her brief time on Earth; for Roger, it’s a business transaction complicated by his own tender feelings towards his surrogate. She expects to be a presence in his — and the baby’s — life; he needs to find his own way as a parent.
What Ingari does beautifully here is to present their positions without judgement. Our sympathies vacillate as the film progresses — from Milo to Roger and back again, and so on. Molly Bernard has crack comic timing; the film has a breezy way with dialogue and moves briskly, entertainingly. Yet there are moments of real drama between Milo and all the major characters, and even if we recoil from her selfishness or wrongheaded cruelty, Bernard never fully alienates us.
Patrick Breen — who’s been memorable in smaller parts in Galaxy Quest and Men in Black (as well as a string of TV guest spots) — imbues Roger with hard-earned wisdom and the knack for communicating exactly what he’s thinking. I doubt he’d cut it as an actual drag queen, but that’s just part of his character (we see him perform in very brief scenes). He wants to do the right thing for himself, his forthcoming child, and the woman facilitating his lifelong dream. He’s both magnanimous and guarded, willing to do the hard work to protect his interests, yet leaving a path open to find a limited way forward for all parties.
Milkwater — the title is from Anne Sexton’s poem “The Consecrating Mother,” which Milo and Roger read to the baby in utero in the film’s tenderest scene — is confident enough to let its ambiguities breathe, allow its characters to grow, retreat, move tentatively forward. Nothing is delivered with a tidy, shiny bow. It’s ragged, but right, just like the woman at its center.