REVIEW: Unpregnant (2020)
There’s a striking resemblance between Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s road-trip comedy Unpregnant (10 September on HBO Max) with Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always; most especially given how both movies deal with the same subject of abortion from the perspective of young women. But where the latter approaches the issue in an understated yet relentless way, Unpregnant attempts to do the opposite: tackling the topic of abortion with jokes and over-the-top subplots. The result may not be as powerful as what Hittman has done in her Sundance hit, but despite its comedic tone, Unpregnant always has its heart in the right place.
Adapted from the debut YA novel of the same name by Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan — both of whom also serve as the movie’s screenwriters along with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, William Parker, and Goldenberg herself — Unpregnant centers its story around Veronica Clarke (Haley Lu Richardson), an overachieving 17-year-old high school student who’s about to graduate and continue her study in an ivy league college. We first meet her while she’s in the school’s bathroom taking a pregnancy test. And as you can probably guess, yes, the result is positive; Veronica is pregnant and it’s clear from how she reacts, she wants to terminate the pregnancy.
The problem is, Veronica lives in Missouri, where in order to have an abortion procedure, an underage kid must have parental consent. And knowing that her religious, conservative parents would never give her permission to go through with the procedure, Veronica has no choice but to find a way to get to the closest abortion clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is almost 1000 miles away from where she lives.
Veronica first assumes that her boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) will support her decision and take her to the clinic. But after she finds out that he might have engineered the pregnancy himself so that she won’t leave their hometown after graduation, Veronica’s remaining saving grace is her former best friend, Bailey Butler (Barbie Ferreira), the queer loner and the school’s outcast – someone who she never expected to have to ask for help. Together, the two embark on a hilarious and unhinged road-trip across the Southwest featuring a stolen car shenanigan, a weird pro-life Christian couple trying to stop them from getting to the clinic, and plenty of radio singalongs with Slurpees on the side. And while all this gets even more chaotic and over-the-top along the journey, the movie always finds a way to ground the story in the characters and their emotions.
Veronica and Bailey’s relationship, in particular, is where Unpregnant gets most of its heartfelt moments. Through their dynamic, not only does the movie manage to touch on more relatable topics such as perfectionism, social pressure, and even the lasting impact of parental divorce, it also reminds us about the importance of having non-judgemental support in our lives; about how we don’t have to deal with everything by ourselves. Yes, all of these may sound pretty basic; and for a movie that props itself as an abortion dramedy, sidelining the main topic it wants to tackle in favor of more formulaic YA tropes may seem a little misguided.
But Unpregnant always makes sure that despite its over-the-top nature and some detours along the way, the message it wants to deliver is never lost. In fact, it’s through all the absurdities happening on Veronica and Bailey’s road trip that Unpregnant gets to drill home its portrayal of the extreme length that young women must go through to get access to proper reproductive healthcare. Even at one point, the movie allows Veronica to utter her frustration out loud on this matter. “Why in the hell do you need to get parental consent to have an abortion but not to actually birth a human child?” she screams helplessly. “F**k you Missouri state legislatures!”
Because of the moment like the one above, Unpregnant evolves into more than just a road-trip comedy, but one that also dares to spark a conversation about abortion, as well as its relation on other areas such as family and religion. The script may not be subtle or realistic when it comes to approaching the subject, but it doesn’t make it any less impactful. If anything, by addressing it using comedy, Unpregnant manages to deliver its message in ways that are more accessible and enjoyable.
That it has such two great actors leading the movie certainly doesn’t hurt either. As Veronica, Richardson is able to display shades of frustration, fear, and exhaustion underneath the perfectionist mannerism of her character. Ferreira, in her first ever movie role (although a fan favourite in HBO’S Euphoria), is also as wonderful as Richardson. She can be manic and hilarious one moment, then showing vulnerability the moment after. The two not only have an easy chemistry, but their comedic timing is also impeccable.
Unpregnant is obviously far from flawless. Goldenberg’s second attempt at directing a feature can get a little uneven throughout. The movie’s depiction of a young woman’s journey into demonstrating her right over her own body is also not as radical and affecting as Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But for the most part, Unpregnant delivers what it sets out to do in the first place: normalizing the conversation revolving around abortion and reproductive health in a light-hearted, heartwarming, and hilarious way. And while doing so, it offers us a showcase of Richardson and Ferreira’s incredible talents. That alone should be enough to hook you in along in this chaotic, silly journey.