Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Unpregnant (streaming on HBO Max) is a road-trip dramedy about two seventeen-year-old girls reconnecting on the way to getting one of them an abortion. You can probably chart the plot right now and you’ll likely hit all the major points. However, what you’ll miss will be its love for its characters, their quirky charm and some strange detours that aren’t strictly necessary, but prove that the movie has more on its mind than just following the formula. It is mostly concerned with friendship and the struggles of being old enough to be held accountable for your choices, while still being too young to be allowed to make big decisions. Though it leaves a few interesting paths unexplored, and leans into areas that are closer to satire than its central story can really handle, it is quite enjoyable.
Veronica is a popular girl who gets good grades, has a steady boyfriend and is loved by her religious parents. Bailey is an outcast. They were best friends as kids who drifted apart as they got older. When Bailey stumbles upon Veronica taking a pregnancy test in the school bathroom, she becomes the only person Veronica can ask to drive her from Missouri (where she would need parental consent for an abortion; something she knows she wouldn’t get) to Albuquerque. Shenanigans and heartfelt bonding ensue.
Unpregnant (based on the 2019 book by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, both of whom also worked on the screenplay) is an amusing journey through serious issues. It does not make light of Veronica’s choice to terminate her pregnancy; her knowledge of the consequences of that decision are what sets the plot in motion. She knows what is right for her, but her fear of letting her parents down or drawing the judgment of her gossipy friends forces her to keep her pregnancy a secret. Couple that with the laws that make things significantly more complicated for her and you have a challenging situation for anyone, let alone a seventeen-year-old.
All of these things are present throughout (religion, pro-choice vs. pro-life, peer pressure, family pressure, personal identity) and only occasionally get in the way of the main story. The movie does lose its way a bit with a sequence looking at the abortion debate that is a little too goofy and a subplot featuring Veronica’s boyfriend that takes several scenes to get her where she could have gotten in a single conversation.
It shines when it focuses on the bond between the two leads. Haley Lu Richardson as studious Veronica and Barbie Ferreira as rebellious Bailey are the token odd-couple. That doesn’t become a problem because their chemistry feels real. Richardson (by far the best part of the 2019 romantic tearjerker Five Feet Apart) juggles the shifting tones very well. She is funny while never downplaying the drama she finds herself in. Ferreira gets most of the jokes as the lonely girl with the hard exterior and shows good comic timing. Both roles are clichés, yet the screenplay clearly cares about them and the actors imbue them with a passion that makes them seem more like individuals. The key with this kind of movie is getting the viewer to like the leads. I definitely did.
When it is simply the story of these two girls, Unpregnant is pretty good. When it tries to include everything else, it is a lot more uneven. Some of the diversions are interesting, but not enough is done with them. For example, there is a brief stopover involving a group of helpful teenagers and a cool racecar driver that feels like it could have been developed a lot more. Additionally, Giancarlo Esposito is criminally underused as a conspiracy theorist/limo driver. I went in expecting a routine teen road-trip movie with a topical premise. It is that, plus just enough extra to make for a pleasant surprise.
3½ out of 5
Haley Lu Richardson as Veronica
Barbie Ferreira as Bailey
Alex MacNicoll as Kevin
Giancarlo Esposito as Bob
Mary McCormack as Debra Clarke
Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg
Written by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, Bill Parker, Jenni Hendriks, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and Ted Caplan