Unpregnant: An Abortion Road Trip Film That Muddles Its Message

Unpregnant debuts on HBO Max on Thursday and much has already been made of the film. The film, which stars Haley Lu Richardson as straight-A high school senior who discovers she's pregnant Veronica and Barbie Ferreira as her nerdy, social outcast, former best friend Bailey, combines the buddy comedy, road trip, and coming-of-age genres with social issues -- in this case, the hot button issue of abortion and, specifically, issues of access. On the surface, it would seem like Unpregnant is taking a very serious topic and making it "fun" and, while the Greg Berlanti-produced film isn't without flaws, that is far from the case. Unpregnant is a moving, if not unevenly presented, look at the importance of female friendship and the realities of abortion and unplanned pregnancy.

The premise of the film is simple: popular, responsible, overachieving Veronica finds herself pregnant despite always taking precautions and Bailey finds out by accident when Veronica drops her pregnancy test on the bathroom floor. Too scared to reveal her situation to her judgmental friends or her conservative parents, Veronica decides to terminate her pregnancy but learns that she cannot do so without parental consent in Missouri and must instead trek to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the procedure. With no one to turn to, Veronica asks for Bailey's help and the pair head off on a thousand-mile road trip.

It's a straightforward premise and the film does try to take on some important issues; social media culture, reproductive coercion, abortion rights, the pro-life movement, even issues of stalking and sexual orientation come into play over the course of the film. Unfortunately, none are dealt with particularly well. Almost everything in this film is over the top or a caricature, leaning too far into threadbare tropes even from the jump. The whole popular kid/weird kid/former friend dynamic is done to death in entertainment generally, but Unpregnant doubles down on it and, while Ferreira’s performance as Bailey is spirited and fun and (in the few scenes it's allowed to be) nuanced, the character is written so stereotypically it is almost painful to watch.

The film also thrusts its characters into outlandish situations for the purpose of pushing the "comedy" and road trip elements of the film. Stolen cars, pro-life activists, and an unnecessary subplot about Bailey's daddy issues all distract from the core of the story and do nothing but try to force the narrative of two girls healing their friendship while dealing with the serious and life-changing decision Veronica has to make. Particularly concerning is the presentation of the pro-life activists in the film, who are played up both for laughs in a way that feels inauthentic to the film and also is extremely superficial. No one's expecting a film about abortion to necessarily treat that side of the debate equally, but even this is a bit much.

What does work for Unpregnant? Richardson does an incredible job of conveying Veronica's struggles with her situation. She's confident in her choice, but she's also deeply human. It's clear that this is not something the character takes lightly. Giancarlo Esposito's character, Bob, falls under the "caricature" description, but Esposito is just such a gifted actor that even in a poorly structured role, he elevates the film. Where Unpregnant really shines, however, is how it presents the challenges Veronica faces in even having access to abortion, as well as the facts about the procedure. At one point in the film, the procedure is explained to Veronica and it's done in a way that is straightforward, honest, and without agenda -- something that's incredibly rare in media.

Unpregnant is an entertaining movie that tries too hard to combine a lighthearted road trip adventure film with abortion. In a film that is clearly intended to prompt discussion and shed light on the real issue of safe, accessible abortion, things get bogged down and tainted with the try-hard attempts to make it light and comfortable for viewers. While seeing the choice of abortion presented as something other than doom, gloom, and depression is empowering and refreshing, Unpregnant wastes too much time trying to be a hip Thelma and Louise knockoff to deliver its message.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Unpregnant debuts on HBO Max on September 10th.