If during one of the many uncomfortably spare scenes in the punishing Sundance breakout Never Rarely Sometimes Always you found yourself craving the light relief of a Kelly Clarkson singalong, then all you needed was patience. Because in just a matter of months, the sombre tale of a 17-year-old girl travelling with a cousin across state lines to get an abortion has been repurposed as a more spirited tale of a 17-year-old girl travelling with a friend across state lines to get an abortion. Something for everyone, then.
In Unpregnant, a shaggy but charming new HBO Max comedy, the archaic and arbitrary state laws concerning how and where under-18s can get an abortion without parental involvement are again put on trial, and there’s an understandably exhausted frustration that ties the two films together. While in Eliza Hittman’s stark drama, there’s less verbalising of this or indeed anything, in Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s flipside comedy, the two teens at its centre are more then ready to share their disdain over the technicalities that push them into an almost 2,000-mile round trip in one weekend. It’s not what grade A, type A student Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) was expecting at this stage of her rigidly planned life and when she finds out that the state of Missouri doesn’t allow her to terminate without her mother finding out, she’s forced to rely on an old friend.
Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) is the childhood pal that Veronica slowly pushed away, the black sheep whose unconventional style and lack of interest in academia led to a split as they got older. Bitterness remains, but Veronica desperately needs a ride and after an uneasy negotiation, the two set off on the road facing an uncertain and at times dangerous journey to New Mexico.
Based on a 2019 book by writing duo Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendricks (who describe the story as “Thelma and Louise with abortion” complete with a nifty reference in the last act), Unpregnant is an unusually accomplished teen-led comedy, a welcome streaming surprise arriving after so many sub-par Netflix attempts. Unlike so many of their flatly made high-school hits, Unpregnant feels directed, a real living, breathing movie with a sense of location and style, one that moves like it was made for a far bigger screen, relying on more than drone shots to convey scale. Its under-the-radar launch, on the relatively new and relatively buzz-free HBO Max, feels like a bit of a curse, a stinging shame for a film that would be a rare treat for a younger audience feeling patronised and underserved by lazily assembled alternatives.
In its handling of a tricky subject, there’s a refreshing lack of coyness and conservatism on show, a much-needed correction to many of the simplistic and largely manmade films that have come before it. In the film, there’s never any question over whether or not Veronica wants to terminate and whether or not that’s a morally sound choice. For too long and too often, we’re shown female characters change their minds at the last minute, as if that’s ultimately the right path or, more commonly, not even see abortion as a viable and positive option. But here, there’s no shame or punishment or regret, just annoyance with a system curdled with hypocrisy and misogyny.
What trips the film up slightly, after a thrilling first act, is an unnecessary tendency to over-deliver on the plot’s more madcap elements. Ferreira’s character is at times a bit of a caricature, less a real person and more an outsized comedy sidekick, and as the journey progresses, the pair encounter a string of increasingly strange and increasingly farcical situations and characters with mixed results. It’s almost as if the writers don’t trust us to simply sit with the pair and explore an interestingly messy and fractured friendship in recovery. It’s the less frenetic scenes that work best, filled with small nuggets of insight, amusing pop culture references and a natural, earthy chemistry, buoyed by a star-making performance from Richardson, a dynamic, funny and infinitely engaging presence who makes the most of even the smallest throwaway lines. She’s a marvel.
It’s an uneven ride, rocky in places, but it’s one that’s also unquestionably worthwhile, a progressive, witty and timely way of reminding many of us how antiquated women’s healthcare still is while also alerting a younger audience that there’s more to the teen movie than Netflix.
Unpregnant is now available on HBO Max in the US with a UK date to be announced