Few hot-button topics have been the subject of more movies in recent years than abortion. And we’re not talking about including it as part of a broader story, but films where it is the main focus. In fact, it’s almost like a duel back and forth between the opposing sides, with 2011’s October Baby and 2019’s Unplanned on the pro-life side, and 2014’s Obvious Child, 2015’s Grandma, and 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always going pro-choice.
The new HBO Max movie Unpregnant falls squarely on the pro-choice side. High school senior Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is shocked to discover she’s pregnant, and then dismayed when Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a childhood friend with whom she’s grown apart, discovers her secret. Unwilling to confide in her friends or her mother, and overwhelmed by her nice-but-domineering boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll), Veronica turns to Bailey for help in getting an abortion.
The biggest issue is that they live in Missouri, and the nearest clinic that allows a minor to get an abortion without parent permission is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And so the duo sets off on a road trip, one with a built-in time crunch that quite obviously will fall prey to multiple obstacles along the way.
Based on the book by Jenni Hendrix and Ted Caplan, and co-written by Hendrix, Caplan, director Rachel Lee Goldenberg, and two others, the film is both a teen comedy and an issue-based drama. Were Veronica’s pregnancy and desire to get an abortion not at the center of the story, you might be able to pretend it’s a playful film about a girl discovering how she’s made the wrong choice in friends over the years.
For the most part, the movie touches on aspects of getting an abortion without getting bogged down in the politics of it. However, Veronica having to go so far to get the procedure and a pointed line of dialogue toward the Missouri state legislature are acknowledgments of the real-life hurdles that have been put in front of women in certain areas of the country. On the flip side, a brief encounter with a Christian couple (Breckin Meyer and Sugar Lyn Beard) is too heavy-handed in vilifying those who are pro-life, almost turning them into horror movie villains.
That last part is one of several odd tonal shifts the film makes. The filmmakers try to keep the story light and breezy most of the time, but they make sharp turns into divorce, sexual identity, and religion that don’t always mesh well with the surrounding events. It’s not that those topics shouldn’t be addressed, but the transitions between the main story and the side plots can be jarring.
Richardson has made a lot of interesting choices in her movie career, and this role fits right in with the niche she’s made for herself. She’s relatable and charming, but maintains a bit of an edge. Ferreira, who co-starred on HBO’s buzzy Euphoria, does well in the sidekick role, bringing more to it than might be expected. Special note should be made of cameos by Betty Who and Giancarlo Esposito, who make the most of what could have been throwaway roles.
Although the film has some nods toward nuance, Unpregnant is mostly unapologetic in its pro-choice stance, which undoubtedly will cause some to denounce it. For those who don’t dismiss it outright, it has two great performances by young actors on the rise and a message about friendship that never goes out of style.
Unpregnant is now streaming on HBO Max.