A film review by Craig J. Koban September 23, 2020

UNPREGNANT jj

MAX ORIGINAL MOVIE

2020, PG-13, 104 mins.

Haley Lu Richardson as Veronica  /  Barbie Ferreria as Bailey  /  Sugar Lyn Beard as Kate  /  Ramona Young as Emily  /  Meg Smith as Hannah  /  Jeryl Prescott as Peg  /  Betty Who as Kira  /  Kirsten Foe as Officer Herrera

Directed by Rachel Goldenberg  /  Written by Goldenberg, Bill Parker, Jenni Hendriks, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, and Ted Caplan, based on the novel by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan
 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

HBO MAX's UNPREGNANT sometimes comes off like a annoyingly quirky sitcom version of the alarmingly similar NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, which I reviewed a few months ago and thought was one of the finest dramas of the year.  

Both films contain the same basic premise: A high school aged girl discovers that she's pregnant and decides to secretly travel outside of her home state in order to obtain a legal abortion without parental consent.  NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS was so dramatically raw and authentic at times that I felt like I was watching a documentary, whereas UNPREGNANT opts for more broad high jinks as an odd couple road trip comedy, which made it ring falsely for me considering the severity of the subject matter.  The one saving grace, though, in this Rachel Lee Goldenberg film is the likeable and committed lead performances by Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira, both of whom create credibly relatable characters even when the underlining screenplay and tone of the film sort of betrays them.  

The film opens in Missouri and quickly introduces us to 17-year-old high school student Veronica (Richardson), who discovers to her horror - via a very awkward home pregnancy test done in the school's bathroom stall - that she is indeed knocked up, which will certainly hurt her momentum as a going-places student, not to mention that it would severely anger her ultra conservative minded parents.  Veronica also faces one nearly insurmountable roadblock: She desperately wants an immediate abortion, but can't get one in her home state because laws there require her parent's legal okay, which she knows she'll never get.  She also gets very little in the way of proper emotional support from her airhead boyfriend (Alex MacNicoll), who sees being a father less as a blessing and more as a social inconvenience months before finishing high school.  

 

 

Veronica could enlist in the help of her many friends, but they're so wrapped up in a bubble of their own social media fuelled self interests that approaching them would prove unbeneficial.  She opts, as a result, to hook back up with her long estranged elementary school friend in Bailey (Ferreira), who's an eccentric and somewhat closeted lesbian that hasn't been in Veronica's inner circle since she essentially dumped her to join the more popular and with-in clique high school BFFs.  Veronica tries to bury the hatchet with Bailey very quickly, mostly because she requires a trusting confidant on her mission to drive out of state to New Mexico to get an abortion, but even more so because she doesn't have a car to take her on the 900 mile trek.  Bailey does what any friend would do and steals her stepdad's classic sports car, and within no time the pair are on the road and hoping to make the pilgrimage and back without Veronica's parents being none the wiser.  Predictably, old childhood wounds come to the forefront between the two adolescents, but they also grow to renew their once nurturing bond.  Oh, and a lot of wacky tomfoolery occurs along the way as well.   

I did like the initial set-up of UNPREGNANT and the early character beats and introductions.  There's some darkly amusing moments to be had early on with Veronica trying as she can to avoid spilling the beans about her pregnancy to just about everyone close to her while trying to find a way out, but is unfortunately stymied in her quest at every waking moment.  She also seems like a fairly well adjusted and smart young women who regrettably trusted herself with a rather dim-witted boyfriend who was stupid enough to improperly use protection during intercourse.  Veronica is not portrayed as some hopelessly clueless protagonist, which is refreshing.  She's an ambitious minded student that hopes to have a successful college career and go on to something great in the real world.  And it's easy to feel some sympathy for this girl's plight, especially when it involves a three-state trip to simply get her pregnancy taken care of.  It's amusing to see the bohemian styled Bailey take everything that Veronica is going through in stride ("So, you're hiding this from your man, your best friends, and your Jesus freak parents," she nonchalantly asks Veronica at one point).   

When UNPREGNANT does work it's usually as a result of the wonderfully natural chemistry that Richardson and Ferreira have on screen, and their performances approach levels of nuance that, as mentioned, the slack jawed screenplay doesn't quite attain.  Both women are effective foils to one another: Veronica is a grades-focused keener that's all about mitigating risk at every turn, whereas Bailey is a free-wheeling spirit that's genuinely happy to go through her days traversing one unpredictable adventure to the next.  Richardson is an underrated talent that I've admired in past films like FIVE FEET APART and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, and she does a good job here of balancing her character's insecurities and worries with a head strong demeanor to get things done.  Ferreira has the trickier role of the two, though, in trying to flesh out this hippie-like misfit that could have easily become a grating caricature with a lesser actress helming the part.  Ferreira plays the role with the right blend of boisterous wit and soft spoken tenderness that really helps the film coast by from scene to scene.  Both actresses bring their A-game and infuse UNPREGNANT with some much needed sweetness and sincerity.  

But, gee whiz, this film simply doesn't seem to take the seriousness of Veronica's plight - and obviously the plight of so many young women facing the burden of terminating their pregnancies in secret - with any level of seriousness.  That's not to say that you can't make a funny comedy out of this type of material (see JUNO), but UNPREGNANT doesn't seem to find a manner of marrying dramatic pathos and hearty comedy with any smoothness.  I checked the credits and this film had five screenwriters, which may or may not have something to do with the overall tone deafness on display here.  There are frankly too many times while watching UNPREGNANT when I gained the immediate impression that the makers here had no idea what they were aiming for throughout.  Some moments lean towards potentially powerful drama, whereas others feel like they were plucked out of incongruent slapstick farces.  Of course, the girls find themselves interacting with a colorful assortment of misfits along the way, but some feel too hopelessly over-the-top for their own good (one would-be hilarious subplot involves Veronica and Bailey idiotically hooking up with a pair of Christian fundamentalists that are so cartoonishly silly that you just want to check yourself out of the film).  

Some of the other side players here are also distractingly strange, like BREAKING BAD's Giancarlo Esposito showing up, at one odd point, as a conspiracy addicted nutjob that just so happens to have a broken down limo that you just know will figure in heavily into getting the ladies to their final destination (Esposito is such a great talent that seems so wasted in many of the films that he appears in).  The other male characters don't fare much better either, like MacNicoll's one-note dumb-assed boyfriend to Veronica is so toxically selfish that you have to wonder how a woman of her intellectual caliber ended up with this lout.  There's one cameo that I did like, which involved Australian singer Betty Who playing a gay stock car driver that gets close and flirtatious with the somewhat insecure with her sexuality Bailey.  They have a few fleeting moments that are great, but they're so quickly abandoned that one is left wishing that a whole screenplay built around their relationship was the focus of a better movie.  

Aside from UNPREGNANT boiling over to an absurd climax, there's one scene beforehand that utterly did this film in for me.  I actually found it condescendingly shallow.  During it, Veronica is at her destination Albuquerque abortion clinic and is given a brief rundown by the support worker there as to what to expect, to which Veronica seems to experience with relaxed euphoria.  Compare this to a nearly identical scene in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, which has a New York based abortion clinic advisor asking a non-stop series of increasingly invasive questions to the traumatized pregnant girl that slowly becomes one of the most unbearably sad moments in recent movie history.  That film wasn't trying to sway audience members in terms of where they fell on the hot button abortion debate, but rather simply tried to relay what must be going on in the headspaces of young women while faced with an incredibly arduous decision making process.  UNPREGNANT in its similar moment, by feeble comparison, comes off as far too casually relaxing for my tastes.   

And yes, I'll concede that comparing these two films might be a fool's errand, but there's no mistaking how startlingly alike they are and how much more monumentally effective and engrossing one is over the other.  It's pretty rare to have two teen centric abortion films that feel cut out of the same basic narrative DNA coming out in the same year, but one should support and champion films made by women, starring women, and featuring women dealing with choices that should be there's and there's alone, but are complicated by outside forces that constantly seem to be subverting them.  There's an argument to be made that if NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS never existed then UNPREGNANT might have had a some chance as a noble minded, well acted, but  meandering and undisciplined comedy about young female empowerment, but that's simply not the case.  UNPREGNANT means well, to be sure, but it's far too frivolously cute and cuddly with the underlining material to make a sizeable and memorable impression on viewers. 

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