Earlier this year, Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always followed the journey of two teenage girls — one seeking to end her pregnancy and the other providing companionship and emotional support — with remarkable sociological groundedness. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) only had to travel about 100 miles to New York from their Pennsylvania town, but the bus ride north and the difficulties of navigating Manhattan as cash-strapped adolescents lugging suitcases up and down subway stairs emphasized the toil, stress and strain that economically disadvantaged girls and women are forced to undergo to get the healthcare they need and deserve.
This relatively novel premise of girls traveling across state lines to exercise their reproductive rights gets another iteration just a few months later in Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s much sunnier and more accessible Unpregnant (HBO Max). Adapted from Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan’s YA novel of the same name, the road-trip comedy finds 17-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) driving the 1,000 miles from Missouri to New Mexico with her one-time bestie Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to visit a clinic that provides abortions to underage teens without parental permission.
A charming and heartfelt if uneven ride.
Largely fueled by Richardson and Ferreira’s charisma and chemistry, Unpregnant is an amiable if uneven ride. The script initially feints at an intimate, low-budget production, with Type A Veronica nagging free-spirited Bailey about not spending too much money on gas-station snacks. To save money, the pair sleep on the side of the highway instead of checking into a motel. But the duo quickly end up having to ditch their first car, leaving them beholden to the sometimes kind, sometimes creepy strangers they meet on the road.
Those strangers — played by Giancarlo Esposito, Betty Who, Breckin Meyer, Sugar Lyn Beard and Denny Lee — get progressively more cartoonish or nonsensical, with one forcing the girls into a life-threatening chase. Thankfully, the deepening bond between Veronica and Bailey makes up for the thinness and plot-device-iness of the later supporting characters.
We get precious few details about Veronica’s home life, but Unpregnant smartly makes the college-bound high-school senior the product of a religious home who isn’t thrilled with the idea of getting an abortion but won’t be dissuaded from getting one, least of all by her clingy boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll). Preoccupied by maintaining appearances — which in 2020 means posting painfully generic inspirational messages on Instagram to impress, or at least assuage, college-admission counselors — Veronica is just calculating enough to sidestep the Everygirl mantle and keep us from predicting her next move.
In her chunky black boots and slime-green hair streaks, Bailey looks like the tougher one of the pair, but she lacks her childhood BFF’s cold pragmatism. Richardson is reliably excellent, particularly in adding darker layers to Veronica’s outward brightness, but Ferreira very nearly steals the picture in a schlubby-stoner role that’s a fun contrast to her baby-sexpot character on HBO’s Euphoria. Ferreira is a comic revelation here, especially when she falls head over heels in lust, and the film gradually reveals Bailey’s secret reason to accompany her estranged friend to Albuquerque beyond the possibility of a side trip to Roswell.
Unpregnant opens with Veronica ill-advisedly taking a pregnancy test at school, and the discovery of the discarded test generates a burst of gossip and conjecture among her mean-girl social circle. But the film’s heart lies in her relationship with Bailey, as well as her growing anger that she has to travel so far to exercise control over her own body. When she finally reaches the clinic (a plot point that doesn’t really count as a spoiler), the film turns educationally earnest in another wayward strand that emphasizes the shagginess of the proceedings.
During its weakest moments, Unpregnant can feel like it’s glued together by charm and sincerity. But it keeps chugging along, pushed forward by its winsome lead performances, its familiar but satisfying emotional beats and its heartfelt conviction that girls and women everywhere need the opportunities to decide their own destinies.
Production company: Berlanti Productions, Picturestart, Warner Max
Distributor: HBO Max
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Barbie Ferreira, Alex MacNicoll, Breckin Meyer, Giancarlo Esposito, Sugar Lyn Beard, Betty Who, Mary McCormack, Denny Love, Ramona Young, Kara Royster
Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg
Writers: Rachel Lee Goldenberg, Ted Caplan, Jenni Hendriks, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, William Parker
Producers: Greg Berlanti, Erik Feig, Sarah Schechter
Executive producers: Lucy Kitada, Michael Sledd, Jessica Switch
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: Celine Diano
Costume designer: Matthew Simonelli
Sound designer: P.K. Hooker
Editor: Julia Wong
Stunt Coordinator: Alex Terzieff
Casting: Rich Delia
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes