Even in the years since Roe v. Wade, a woman’s access to a safe and legal abortion in the United States has always felt precarious, as if it were merely a privilege—rather than a human right—that some ruling body of men could pluck away at any time. In 2020, we’ve come to feel as if we’re perilously close to that reality. So is this a good time or a bad time to release a comedy about a 17-year-old who has to cross three state lines to get an abortion?
The answer is that it’s never a bad time. In Unpregnant, directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg and adapted from Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan’s young-adult novel of the same name, Haley Lu Richardson plays Veronica, a smart, popular high school student who’s dismayed, as almost any young woman still in high school would be, to learn she’s pregnant. She thinks she and her boyfriend have been careful, and yet the not-so-unthinkable has happened. Veronica is from a religious family and doesn’t dare tell her mother (Mary McCormack, who makes the most of her single small but significant scene). She also lives in a state, Missouri, where a minor can’t have an abortion without parental consent; the nearest clinic that will perform the procedure is in Albuquerque. Veronica scrounges up every dollar, every quarter, she can lay her hands on and, after telling her mother she’s going to a friend’s house to study for the weekend, heads out to find her way to New Mexico—without a car.
Veronica is part of a clan of cool girls at school, but she can’t trust them with her secret—they’re more interested in teen-pregnancy gossip (and in passing judgment) than in providing moral support or practical help. The only friend to whom she can turn is slouchy, awkward Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), her best friend in childhood, though the two have grown apart over the years. Bailey, who feels rejected by Veronica, resists at first. But she does have access to a pretty groovy Trans Am, and she’s up for an adventure. She agrees to drive Veronica to Albuquerque, though she refuses at first to embrace the seriousness of the mission: she’s hoping they can hit few touristy spots, like alien-abduction capital Roswell, along the way.
What follows is part road-trip comedy, part meditation on the trials of friendship. One segment even has the unhinged vibe of a John Waters farce. The abortion angle sometimes reads like an afterthought—though that’s not always a bad thing. Unpregnant isn’t, and isn’t intended to be, a serious meditation on the gravity of abortion, though it does acknowledge the complexity of the decision. It’s neither as tender nor as anxiety-provoking as Eliza Hittman’s recent feature Never Rarely Sometimes Always, another film about a young woman, also underage, in similar straits: She and her cousin must travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City, though because she’s further along in her pregnancy than she realizes, the procedure is much more complicated than she expects, and more harrowing.
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And though it probably goes without saying, Unpregnant is a world apart from Cristian Mungiu’s wrenching 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about a young woman whose friend helps her obtain an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. In fact, Unpregnant avoids dealing with any of the potential health risks or complications of abortion, though its matter-of-factness is a relief: When abortions are performed by trained doctors, the dangers are relatively low. The emotional scars are another matter, and vary from woman to woman. Unpregnant doesn’t really address Veronica’s deepest feelings, but Richardson is a good enough actor to convey the gravity of her character’s situation: she simply does not want a child right now. Her boyfriend, a lanky, self-centered dirt-bike enthusiast (Alex MacNicholl) keeps trying to pressure her into keeping the baby—they’ll marry and raise it together—without considering what she wants. Unpregnant is less concerned with the emotional costs of abortion than it is with the challenges of mapping the course of your own life, which includes acknowledgement of what it means to bring another life into the world.
Unpregnant is also a reassurance that when you need help, there are probably more people willing to offer it than you realize. There’s a conspiracy theorist who turns out to be a secret softie (Giancarlo Esposito), a Texas troublemaker (Denny Love) who stirs up the right kind of mischief when Veronica and Bailey run afoul of local law enforcement, and a fetching race-car driver who sets Bailey’s heart aflutter (singer-songwriter Betty Who). Sometimes the madcap levity of Unpregnant feels forced, but its two leads keep the whole enterprise afloat: Richardson plays Veronica’s good-girl demeanor as a grand, self-deprecating joke. And as Bailey, Ferreira has some of the self-protective fierceness of Fairuza Balk circa The Craft—with her dark, shaggy bangs and pillowy lips, she’s like a pouty raven. But she’s also raw and rollicking and sensual, open to the world in ways that Veronica is not. These two need each other, and Unpregnant is ultimately about the people who have our backs when the rest of the world seems to be pushing against us—in other words, the families we choose for ourselves.