What does a teenage girl do if she gets pregnant? According to teen pregnancy classics like Juno or For Keeps, she carries the baby to term. Depending on the girl, she might give the kid to another loving family or choose to become a mother. Though these can be empowering narratives for girls that choose to give birth, there’s a noticeable dearth of films that seek to understand the girls that don’t. Almost a quarter of women in the US have an abortion by the time they’re 45 years old, a fact that makes the lack of abortion representation onscreen positively shameful.
Luckily, some directors are filling in the gaps. Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always tackled the subject with a delicate touch, focusing on the barriers in place that can make getting an abortion a literal journey across state lines. On paper, Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant follows the same struggle: Missouri girl Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) doesn’t want to tell her mum about her abortion, but the closest state that lets minors get abortions without parental consent is New Mexico. She grabs her childhood best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) and hops in a maybe-stolen vehicle headed straight to Albuquerque. What sets Unpregnant apart from Never Rarely is its willingness to good-naturedly rib on the whole situation.
Based on a YA novel of the same name by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks, Unpregnant is more of a buddy film than a heart-wrenching drama. Luckily, instead of finding its humour in bad abortion jokes, a string of insane mishaps take place over the course of the trip; a near-arrest, a kidnapping by an anti-choice couple, a ride in an unexpected limo. Veronica and Bailey become the comedic foils to the clownery of rural America as events dip further into absurdity. This willingness to take Veronica and Bailey seriously is the film’s strongest quality. Even when they make bad decisions, we understand that those choices are informed by a need to see Veronica through to her abortion. Her fear and concern for her future are never de-legitimised, even when the film dips into silly slapstick.
Richardson and Ferreira sell the fraught friendship between their characters with tropey ease, with Richardson as the straightlaced soon-to-be Ivy Leaguer and Ferreira as the sloppy gamer girl. This dynamic would feel forced in a more juvenile film, but the mature subject matter allows these girls to grow up and out of their respective clichés. Both come from fractured homes and deal with their own romantic drama, be that an emotionally manipulative stalker boyfriend or having a first kiss with a cute Texan girl. Their history and respective struggles work in tandem to create believable undying loyalty between them, making this the strongest representation of teen friendship since Booksmart.
There are a few bumps in the road. The most noticeable of these is the occasionally stilted dialogue. It certainly isn’t Juno, running into moments of awkward one-liners and hollow melodrama. Though it provides us with more info about her, one whole plotline regarding Bailey’s absentee dad has little emotional pay-off and a surprisingly juvenile conclusion. There are enough little threads in the film for a whole miniseries. The highs of this experiment, like Bailey’s quick romance with Kira, are loads of fun, but the lows only serve to delay the gratification of the main storyline in an irritating way. The last fifteen minutes of the film show how poignant it can be, so it’s disappointing to see other threads fall dead in the water.
Unpregnant isn’t perfect, but it fulfills an important purpose. A teen abortion comedy is unexplored territory. To show young women that abortion isn’t inherently traumatic, that doing so can be a choice made without sadness, is to disrupt popular notions of anti-choice rhetoric. Veronica’s joy and relief are more common than is often believed or shown on screen. Her story directly calls into question the oppressive US abortion policies that specifically target minors. Having fun while being political is the Gen Z modus operandi and Unpregnant might just be the first film that approaches abortion with that philosophy in mind.
Unpregnant is available to stream now on HBO Max
by McKinzie Smith
McKinzie (she/her) is a Film Studies graduate from Portland, Oregon. Soon she’ll be pursuing an MA in Journalism, but until then she’s watching so many movies all the time! She loves French films, french fries, and her French Bulldogs. You can find her words in Little White Lies and Willamette Week, or follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @notmckinzie.
Categories: Reviews, Women Film-makers
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