Somewhere between opening with the absolute nightmare scenario of taking a pregnancy test in a high school bathroom and the flashback-inducing sight of Doc Martens with mismatched socks peeking out over the top, Unpregnant had me charmed within a minute flat. Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg (A Deadly Adoption, Valley Girl) and now streaming on HBO Max, Unpregnant is a genuinely heartwarming abortion comedy—words that make rather odd bedfellows, but ultimately the whole thing works, and it works remarkably well.
When the popular, type-A, Ivy League-bound valedictorian Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson, phenomenal as always) gets pregnant when a condom fails, she convinces former best friend and social outcast Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to drive her to the nearest clinic that will allow her to get an abortion without parental consent—which happens to be in Albuquerque, New Mexico, nearly 1000 miles away from their Missouri hometown. Because this is a movie, there are, of course, an increasingly outlandish series of both obstacles and unexpected allies encountered along the journey. There’s drag racing, unhinged pro-life activists, and a fun appearance from Giancarlo Esposito as Bob, a libertarian conspiracy theorist and occasional limo driver who definitely feels modeled after Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Psycho Sam.
There’s a lot in Unpregnant that’s pretty familiar material within the road-trip comedy and teen movie genres. There’s an inevitable car chase sequence, for instance, and Veronica and Bailey’s “popular girl and outcast who used to be besties” origin story is definitely something you’ve seen before. Still, there’s enough wit and charm here to make even the more generic beats decently entertaining, and Richardson and Ferreira have enough chemistry to invest you in their friendship woes even if you know exactly how this story goes.
Unpregnant is the sort of exaggerated comedy that gets away with its hyperboles more often than not because they are compellingly founded in keen-eyed observations. Veronica’s ass-clown of a boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll), for instance, presents excellently observed commentary on the particular breed of douchebag that is “nice guys” who reveal their true colors the moment they don’t think their “niceness” is being adequately rewarded.
People who work in movies love to tout the idea of the power of movies for rather obvious reasons. While it’s true cinema can be a powerful tool to communicate, educate, and support social change, there are limits. For example, contrary to what some filmmakers dead set on making another plantation slavery story seem to believe, movies will not single-handedly solve racism, and no number of viscerally painful whipping scenes will change that. However, one important public good that the movies do have the capacity to accomplish very effectively is that of destigmatization. Seeing a particular identity, condition, or issue treated respectfully front and center in a film can be a very powerful way of telling people who can identify with whatever it may be: you’re okay, you’re accepted, you should not be ashamed. This is one of the key reasons why diverse representation on-screen is so important. It’s also why Unpregnant is really a quite unique and important abortion story—Veronica’s abortion is the goal and not the conflict.
Unpregnant doesn’t pretend that getting an abortion is an easy or painless decision because of course, it’s not, but for once that’s not the crux of the story. Veronica makes the decision that is hers and hers alone to make, and her decision is never questioned or problematized. Instead, Unpregnant focuses on punishingly restrictive legislation and social stigma to provide the basis for the conflicts that drive the story, which it tells in a way that respects the gravity of the subject without being utterly depressing. Heavy dramas can make for excellent cinema and it’s hardly surprising that most films dealing with abortion and abortion access are dark and heavy dramatic fare. But films that manage to tackle difficult subjects through comedy represent a welcome and rejuvenating counterpart, and that’s precisely what Unpregnant brings to the table.
All in all, Unpregnant is a charming one-finger salute to the shame and stigma surrounding abortion, and one of the rare times a film that can be accurately labeled “important viewing” won’t leave you curled up on the couch in a ball of despair.
Header Image Source: HBO MAX