Having apparently concluded that they’ve made their case, the filmmakers behind the God’s Not Dead franchise have moved on to the hot-button issue of abortion. Their new film, based on Abby Johnson’s memoir, delivers a nuanced exploration of a subject about which honorable people can disagree. This fair and balanced dramatization should lead to thoughtful, civil discussions that….
Just kidding. Unplanned, of course, merely preaches to the choir. It’s not that anyone was expecting the film be anything other than proselytizing agitprop. But writers-directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman have outdone themselves with this effort that demonizes Planned Parenthood to such a degree that you expect the organization to be the villain in the next Marvel movie. There have been films that treated Nazi doctors conducting evil experiments in concentration camps more sympathetically. (Unplanned ends with an onscreen graphic informing us that it was made without the cooperation of Planned Parenthood. Well, duh.)
Not for the pro-choice crowd.
It’s not my job to investigate the distortions and inaccuracies in Johnson’s memoir (although some journalists certainly have). There’s no denying that it makes for a dramatic tale, one that the filmmakers have seized on like a dog with a chew toy. Johnson (Ashley Bratcher), who had two abortions herself in her early years, was recruited as a volunteer by a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic, where she escorted potential patients into the building as they faced protests by pro-lifers. She rose up the ranks and was eventually made the clinic’s director while still in her 20s. By her account, she experienced a crisis of conscious after being called upon to assist in an abortion involving an ultrasound. She watched, horrified, as the fetus seemed to fight for its life before being dismembered and sucked into a tube. That incident is depicted in the film’s opening minutes as a fever-dream nightmare, the unsympathetic doctor joking, “Beam me up, Scotty,” as he performs his grisly task. (The sequence is graphic enough to have earned Pure Flix its first “R” rating.)
Of course, the doctor’s callousness pales in comparison to that of Abby’s superior, Cheryl (played by Robia Scott, who early in her show business career danced the part of Pearl in Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls tour and is now, according to her bio, engaged in full-time ministry). Cheryl, who promotes Abby because she doesn’t cry upon first examining the remains of an aborted fetus, is shown to be so unconcerned about her patients that when one young woman experiences a medical emergency, she makes sure that enough drugs are pumped into her that she won’t remember a thing.
The pic piles on one such inflammatory episode after another, with Planned Parenthood shown as being solely concerned with the bottom line and performing as many abortions as it can. When Johnson protests that the goal of the organization should be to make the procedure as rare as possible, Cheryl delivers a speech comparing abortions to the high-profit “fries and soda” sold by hamburger joints.
“Abortion is what pays your salary!” Cheryl snaps, reminding Abby that “nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model.” When Abby resigns and tearfully seeks emotional support from kind-hearted pro-life activists Shawn (Jared Lotz) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts), Cheryl initiates legal action, threatening Abby that she’s facing “one of the most powerful organizations in the planet,” whose donors include “Soros, Gates and Buffett.” Those boogie-man references are delivered very late in the movie, which is the nearest it comes to restraint.
Even while she works at the clinic, Abby faces the disapproval of her parents and husband Doug (Brooks Ryan), who constantly implore her to quit her job on moral and religious grounds. Adding unspoken weight to their argument is Abby’s angelic young daughter, who at one point worriedly asks her mother why there’s blood on her shoes.
One wonders why Unplanned, which resembles a basic cable television movie in its mediocre production values and subpar performances, was made. Its target audience certainly doesn’t need convincing on the subject, if the shouts of approval frequently heard in the theater on opening day are any indication. (The movie wasn’t screened in advance for critics, at least those of the non-religious variety.) And anyone on the pro-choice side of the debate is unlikely to be swayed by its ham-fisted histrionics and oversimplifications. So that leaves the financial motive, which puts the film company in the uncomfortable position of indirectly making money from abortions. And unlike Planned Parenthood, it’s not even a nonprofit.
Production company/distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment
Cast: Ashley Bratcher, Brooks Ryan, Robia Scott, Jared Lotz, Emma Elle Roberts, Tina Toner
Directors-screenwriters: Cary Solomon, Chuck Konzelman
Producers: Daryl Lefever, Chris Jones, Joe Knopp, Cary Solomon, Chuck Konzelman
Executive producer: Steven Katz
Director of photography: Drew Maw
Production designer: Chris Rose
Editor: Parker Adams
Costume design: Anna Redman
Casting: Sheila Hart
Rated R, 106 minutes