Film & TV

Unpregnant Wades Into the Abortion Debate Without a Distinct Point of View

Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira in Unpregnant.
Photo by Ursula Coyote
Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira in Unpregnant.
For more than 50 years, this country has raged over the issue of reproductive rights. Unpregnant, a new film by director Rachel Lee Goldenberg for HBO Max, has already produced polarizing responses from both sides of the debate. The Cut headlined the film as a welcome antidote to "bummer abortion movies," while USA Today published an op-ed whose authors called on readers to pray for those involved in the making of the film. The movie itself, meanwhile, wades into the fray without much of an impact, leaving one instead praying for a sharper film.

The film opens with Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson), a popular type-A overachiever bound for Brown in the fall, discovering she is pregnant in a high school restroom stall. It might be the first test she has failed, and it leaves Veronica feeling bewildered, wondering how this could have happened to her.

In a pleasant shift from films like Juno or Knocked Up, there's no exhaustive will-she, won't-she to Veronica's decision to terminate her pregnancy. Veronica is immediate and resolute in her decision. The conversation here pivots to how the state of Missouri does not allow abortions to young women under the age of 18 without parental consent, making hers a total nonstarter with her religious family.

Upon being informed that Albuquerque is her closest bet for medical treatment, she springs into action, mapping out her journey and budgeting everything while also coming to terms with the fact that her options for a copilot are limited. Her pious mother, dimwitted boyfriend, and gossipy social group are useless, so Veronica ends up at the door of her only option: Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), her former friend who's now the school's resident outcast alt-girl.

Bailey proudly proclaims that she doesn't have anything else going on, so the two set off together, with the abortion serving mostly as a catalyst for this combination road movie and female buddy comedy. Yet Goldenberg fails to produce either one, despite having adapted Unpregnant from Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks’s YA novel of the same name.

There's inherent chemistry between Richardson and Ferreira, which only makes you wish for a stronger script and a fleshing-out of their relationship. The film gives us a single hazy flashback showing the girls as best friends, relying on a series of inside jokes — including a gas-station slushie concoction that becomes a pivotal plot point — to illustrate the bond of their prior friendship.
click to enlarge Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira in Unpregnant. - PHOTO BY URSULA COYOTE
Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira in Unpregnant.
Photo by Ursula Coyote
Ultimately we learn that their friendship ended how most friendships end, with their worldviews and lives slowly going in different directions. Realistic? Yes. Relatable? Yes. Cinematic? No. And it undermines the inevitable and blandly telegraphed reunion that every film about female friendship tends to include. Unpregnant doesn't have any real self-discovery or changes in store for its characters on their road trip, highlighting the lack of interest in developing them as characters.

For every obstacle the girls are confronted with, they're handed a disappointing solution by chance rather than arriving at one by exploring the ingenuity of the leading ladies. Members of the supporting cast — typically a highlight of road-trip movies — are so underdeveloped and pointless that one wishes their screen time had been redistributed for the sake of fleshing out the central relationship. Even Bailey is weighted down with subplots that feel more like afterthoughts than anything else.

This is not to say that the film doesn't have its moments. There are small jokes — like an early montage wherein Veronica recalls each sexual encounter to confirm a condom was present, or the moment where her boyfriend orders a Mountain Dew before an ill-conceived marriage proposal (a perfect illustration of how it often takes men a little longer transitioning from adolescence to adulthood).

One indelible image has the two 17-year-old women, compelled to travel cross-country to exercise agency over their own bodies, sitting helplessly beneath a strip-club billboard advertising "barely 18" dancers. If only the rest of the film approached that level of absurd irony and staunch point of view.

Is Unpregnant political? Yes, a little, in that it exists as an important step in the continued destigmatization of abortion in cinema. Bit it possesses neither the power of Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always (approaching a similar plot through a dramatic lens just earlier this year) nor the charm and acerbic wit of other films that tackle the topic, including Obvious Child, Grandma, and Citizen Ruth.

At one point, Veronica loses hope and screams out her frustration. What could have been an empowering indictment of the system comes out as a toothless and inarticulate shrug. Even when Veronica arrives for her appointment, a nurse narrates the procedure in a way that plays out more like a '90s-era tampon advertisement than anything impactful — complete with a nonsensical soft focus and pastel coloring.

It's disheartening that Unpregnant feels like the product of an algorithm aimed at mass appeal rather than a film that stakes out a piece of moral ground. And you're unlikely to beat yourself up for having watched it, you're bound to rue all of its missed opportunities. And then more than likely, you'll never give it another thought.

Unpregnant. Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Barbie Ferreira, Alex MacNicoll, Breckin Meyer, and Giancarlo Esposito. Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg. Written by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, Ted Caplan, Jenni Hendriks, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, and William Parker. Rated PG-13. Streaming on HBO Max.