Thursday, September 24, 2020

Unpregnant Wraps a Unique Story In Familiar Packaging

Unpregnant protagonist Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) has a problem. Well, more like a pressing issue. She's pregnant. She's already settled on having an abortion but she lives in Missouri. She can't do the procedure here without getting her parents' permission first. Her ultra-religious Mom is not gonna go for that. So, in an attempt to make sure as few people know about this as possible, Veronica turns to her former best friend, Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) for help in getting to Albuquerque, New Mexico so that she can get the abortion on her own. Bailey agrees to help and the two are off. Veronica's carefully plotted every moment of this expedition. However, given that Unpregnant is a road trip movie, a whole bunch of complications (plus unresolved issues between Veronica and Bailey) are bound to intrude on Veronica's plans.

Based on a young-adult novel by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendricks, Unpregnant has a number of hallmarks of this YA-novel movie adaptations (see also: The Fault In Our Stars, Love, Simon). Antagonists are painted in such broad strokes that nobody will have any problem guessing who the baddies are. Dialogue tends to err on the side of large pronounced statements that probably looked better in the pages of a novel than being said by human beings. Westerns have High Noon showdowns. Rom-com's have climactic reunions at airports. Marvel Cinematic Universe movies creepily erase gay people. Every genre has staples and Unpregnant doesn't escape some of the hallmarks of the YA-novel movie adaptation.

While Unpregnant is familiar in key respects, that doesn't make it a bad movie at all. In fact, it feels like a conscious choice on the part of Unpregnant's assorted screenwriters (which include director Rachel Lee Goldberg) to nestle in some bolder storytelling traits into a familiar package. After all, feature films of any kind about abortion are still scarce. The ones we do have tend to be grim dramas like Vera Drake and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Unpregnant's bubbly-tone and heavy-dose of modern pop culture references are far from groundbreaking in the domain of teen-oriented YA novel film adaptations. 

However, it is unique to see those crowdpleaser elements fused together with a compassionate take on the topic of abortion. In other words, the packaging may be familiar, but the contents inside are less so. For instance, from the get-go, Veronica knows what she wants to do in regards to her pregnancy. Time isn't wasted on her being indecisive, she knows she wants an abortion and the movie never demonizes her for it. On the contrary, the prospect of her going down this route is shown as a positive extension of Veronica finally allowing herself to be, well, herself rather than a model portrait of other people's expectations.

The writing on Veronica as a character as a whole can get erratic. In particular, early scenes framing her as a super-literal quasi-Data figure (she goes on a tear at one point about the lyrics to The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go make no sense) feel totally at odds with her personality in the rest of the movie. However, the script's handling of Veronica's abortion-related decisions is certainly one of its strongest suits. This is where the overt style of dialogue actually comes in handy, as it allows for moments like Rachel's extended diatribe on how ridiculous medical double standards are when it comes to abortions. This type of writing allows us to get inside Veronica's head, creating some of the most thoughtful moments of Unpregnant in the process.

The role is also another chance for Haley Lu Richardson to shine as a performer. Unpregnant's pronounced nature is a far cry from the subdued atmosphere of Richardson's past films, like Columbus. However, Richardson proves more than adept in adjusting to the specific atmosphere of Unpregnant. She's also got solid chemistry with co-lead Barbie Ferrera. They don't prove to be a road trip movie duo for the ages, but they're a fine pair to watch get into antics for 100 minutes. The novelty of seeing a unique story told in a familiar manner has its virtues and drawbacks. For the most part, though, Unpregnant proves an agreeable watch. Plus, between this and An American Pickle, I appreciate that HBO Max's original movies actually look like movies! Yay for streaming-exclusive fare that actually looks cinematic! 

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