It takes about 47 minutes for Unpregnant to say the word “abortion.” Not only that, the movie’s main character is afraid to even say the word until she’s stuck on a swinging carnival ride. But why? The movie’s plot is about someone going to get an abortion, yet that someone keeps finding synonyms as a security blanket. What’s scarier for her, the stigma of teen pregnancy or religious conservatives yelling at her that she’s murdering a baby? Once more, how do you make any of that stress funny?
According to the movie, based on the 2019 book of the same name by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, there’s actually quite a bit of humor to be mined from public perception on abortions (in a tasteful and informative way, thankfully). 17-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is a model Missouri citizen: straight-A student, popular at school, and loyal to the spirit in the sky thanks to her Christian family. Well partially loyal, as her busy sex life with her also-Christian boyfriend (Alex MacNicoll) has led to an unplanned pregnancy. She can’t tell anyone out of fear of being socially shunned and no nearby abortion clinic will admit an unaccompanied minor, so she has to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico to get the procedure done. To get there, she begs her ex-best friend and loner nerd Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to drive her.
Despite the loaded topic lying underneath the movie, Unpregnant is still a light and wacky road trip movie with the glossy sheen of a teen comedy. Its two leads have the straight man-comic foil journey like Planes, Trains and Automobiles with a modernity akin to Booksmart. Thankfully the script doesn’t resort to slapstick or lowbrow humor as time filler, save for one wild detour where it makes pro-life Christians look like the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It instead focuses mostly on the relationship between Veronica and Bailey with occasional splashes of mature ribbing on America’s standards on abortion along with the stigma and even religious romanticism of teen pregnancy. What’s more surprising is how simple Unpregnant makes those messages sound, especially considering the five credited writers on the script including the book’s authors, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Someone Great) and director Rachel Lee Goldenberg (A Deadly Adoption, Valley Girl). Though some things about the movie are too simple to the point of non-existence, like Veronica and Bailey’s own backstory. Goldenberg is in such a rush to get her girls on the road that she and her writer forget to give them a solid backstory and instead relies on reused character tropes (Veronica’s wall of awards and Bailey’s extensive knowledge of Star Trek, for instance). There’s also typical buddy road movie tropes, like the surprise love interest and the third act break-up/make-up, but Unpregnant has enough fresh material to sprinkle between token plot elements.
A road trip buddy comedy rides or dies on the chemistry of said buddies and Unpregnant has very dependable leads. Richardson can add this to her impressive resume as one of Hollywood’s most mature and funny young actors (Columbus, Five Feet Apart, The Edge of Seventeen). She has a solid grip on the scenes addressing the tough issues in the movie along with a handful of funny moments to herself, but she’s mostly the foil to her co-star’s wacky antics. Ferreira (Euphoria) makes a damn good movie debut as the droll, sarcastic geek with confidence radiating from the green streaks in her hair. She may be dressed like she’s attending U2’s PopMart Tour in the late 90s, but Ferreira has a laid-back swagger that wouldn’t be lost in a Judd Apatow comedy. She has great chemistry with Richardson while also getting one solo scene to show her emotional range. Whether or not the glossy melodrama of Euphoria sticks around, Ferreira has potential for a future in film. Unpregnant is mostly a two-women show but has its fair share of brief but effective cameos (Breckin Meyer, Giancarlo Esposito and Mary McCormack specifically).
If the modern crop of teen comedies seems too sanitized, pandering and out-of-touch, Unpregnant is a sign of progress. Much like last year’s Booksmart, it flies on the chemistry of its two leads and approaches current social issues in a way that’s both informed and funny. It makes one wonder why major Hollywood studios are so allergic to promoting movies with such a dignified approach to a relevant subject matter. Sure the actors playing these struggles teens are well into their 20s, but there are teeangers in America who’d like to see media that handles relatable struggles instead of exploiting them.
Unpregnant is now streaming on HBO Max.