Evil pro-lifers, warm-hearted gal pals, kindly Planned Parenthood workers … One character is missing: the baby.
In July, Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always was released, tracing the journey of two underage girls as they make their way from Pennsylvania to New York, where the heroine of the film will be able to procure an abortion without parental consent. It is a dark, gritty film, and Hittman pulls no punches. Abortion, the story makes clear, is an ugly necessity in an ugly world.
Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant (streaming on HBO Max), the second abortion road-trip movie of the year, is something quite different. Seventeen-year-old Veronica Clarke (Haley Lu Richardson), a cute, perky blond with an impeccable academic record and all-American girl-next-door looks finds herself pregnant and needs an abortion. But Missouri requires parental consent, and her parents are, in the words of her road-trip buddy Bailey Butler (Barbie Ferreria), “Jesus freaks.”
Unpregnant is a confusing fusion of genres: road-trip movie; coming-of-age tale; slapstick comedy. Veronica and Bailey launch off on a thousand-mile road-trip from Missouri to Albuquerque, N.M., where Veronica can get a Sunday-morning abortion while her Catholic parents are presumably in church. The “procedure,” as she refers to it, will cost just over $500 — but she has an ingenious solution. When she tells her boyfriend, Kevin, that she is pregnant, he promptly proposes to her, and she pawns the diamond engagement ring to fund the abortion trip.
What follows is a classic America road-trip: 1950s diners; state troopers; monster-truck rallies; amusement parks. The teens steal a car, hitch a ride in the box of a pickup truck in Texas (cue the country tunes), and discover things about each other and themselves. Everything is normal, except for the fact that the key message of the movie is constantly ramrodded home: Abortion is good. Pro-life laws are bad. Pro-lifers are the worst.
Previous “abortion comedies” (such as 2014’s Obvious Child) have flopped, but Unpregnant is easily the entertainment industry’s most ambitious attempt to “normalize and destigmatize abortion,” in the exact words of director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. When the boyfriend (a dumb jock whose charm wears off as the film wears on) refers to “our baby,” Bailey corrects him with a sneer: “It’s not a baby yet.” As the girls surge through the air on an amusement-park ride, Veronica throws her head back and screams, “I’m pregnant and I’m getting an abortion!” before she and Bailey dissolve into laughter.
But none of that compares with the way Unpregnant portrays pro-lifers. As they leave the amusement park, the girls are offered a ride to their destination by a sickly-sweet, Southern-accented Christian couple (played by Sugar Lyn Beard and Breckin Meyer). As it turns out, the couple overheard Bailey booking Veronica’s abortion appointment and decided to kidnap them, presumably to either persuade her to change her mind or imprison her in their home (Gilead 2020). The girls fall asleep in the couple’s SUV and realize when they awake that they are at the couple’s home, not in New Mexico.
What follows is a bizarre caricature of precisely how the abortion industry portrays pro-lifers. As Veronica tries to get her cellphone back from the wife, Bailey stumbles across a sinister room upstairs (cue the horror-movie soundtrack.) It is packed with pro-life signs, clearly modeled on slogans from various major American pro-life groups such as Students for Life of America, the Susan B. Anthony List, and 40 Days for Life: End Abortion; We Are the Pro-Life Generation; Vote Pro-Life. The girls flee in the SUV with the husband in hot pursuit in an RV-turned crisis-pregnancy center on wheels, with “Free Pregnancy Diagnosis And Ultrasound” emblazoned across the sides and a giant cardboard toddler fastened to the hood.
Even the dialogue during the high-speed car chase sounds like something ripped out of a Planned Parenthood pamphlet. “We just want to give you pregnancy advice!” the pro-lifer/creepy kidnapper bellows as he rams the SUV with his anti-abortion mobile. “Did you know that getting an abortion could cause you not to get pregnant in the future?” The pro-choice heroine howls back bravely: “That’s not true! And that’s a very problematic falsehood to be spreading!”
In case any viewers have missed the point of all of this, a short while later Veronica launches into an impassioned monologue after failing to jump onto a passing train to get to Albuquerque for her abortion appointment. It is disgusting, she yells into the wind, that she must go to such great lengths to get an abortion without her parents knowing about it. She and any other girl should be able to “waltz into” any abortion clinic and get whatever procedure they want. “Why do you need parental consent for this but not to birth an actual human child?” she screams. “F*** you, Missouri State Legislature!” So there you have it, then.
Predictably, the girls arrive, dusty and tired, at the abortion clinic in New Mexico, a haven from the angry pro-lifers shrieking their disapproval outside. The moment they enter the clinic, the music becomes welcoming and soothing, the calm clinic worker (just as in Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always) is heroic and helpful, and the women in the waiting room smile encouragingly at one another. As Bailey has already pointed out earlier in their journey, abortion is normal: One in four women have one. Everyone is in this together — minus the children in the womb, of course. The clinic worker tells Veronica how the “fetus” will be suctioned out of her, and when she awakes in the recovery room, the camera pans out to show a room filled with women and girls — relieved, relaxed, and above all — unpregnant.
The fact that Unpregnant is an abortion infomercial loosely disguised as a teen flick is entirely intentional. Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg explained in one interview that she is passionate about promoting “reproductive rights” because of her own abortion. Like Veronica Clarke, she noted, her abortion brought her great relief and no regret (something she has Veronica tell her Catholic mother in the closing scene of the film). “I’m proud to be working on a project that will hopefully help destigmatize and normalize abortion,” she explained. “The majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, and one in four people who can get pregnant will have an abortion in their lifetime. Everybody knows and loves someone who’s had an abortion.”
Goldenberg last observation is correct, and the way she portrays that in Unpregnant is one of the only affecting scenes in an otherwise cartoonishly propagandic film: When Veronica comes home and her mother is waiting for her, the daughter dissolves into tears and says she’s terrified that her mother will no longer love her. Her mother pulls her daughter into her arms and says that while she doesn’t understand her decision, she will always love her, no matter what. Goldenberg is right to say that we all know and love someone who has had an abortion, and her portrayal is an accurate depiction of sad conversations that play out across America with tragic frequency.
Unpregnant lacks the grittiness and subtlety of Never Rarely Sometimes Always and attempts to be a classic American movie in a way that Obvious Child did not. Inevitably, however, Goldenberg cannot resist caricaturing Christians and pro-lifers as close-minded and even evil bigots, willing to perpetrate crimes and inflict needless pain — and for what? That is the great unanswered question of Unpregnant. Veronica Clarke’s baby is the reason for the road trip, but the baby makes no appearance, and it is the child’s disappearance that renders the trip a success. Unpregnant claims to grapple with the abortion debate but settles for cheap smears and lazy slogans instead.