Movie review: 'Unpregnant' and other films about reproductive freedom

©Tribune News Service

Poster for HBO MAX's "Unpregnant." - Ursula Coyote/HBO Max/TNS

This Thursday, HBO Max releases the coming-of-age comedy “Unpregnant,” starring Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira, directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, based on the novel by Jenni Hendriks. The funny and charming high school adventure film follows Veronica (Richardson), who enlists the help of a former best friend, Bailey (Ferreira), in making her way from Missouri to New Mexico, seeking to terminate an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.

The film is a rollicking road movie filled with all kinds of mishaps and misadventures through the Southwest, from state fairs and demolition derbies to encounters with pro-life zealots and unlikely, limo-driving guardian angels. Richardson has been quietly proving herself as an empathetic and soulful lead actress, while Ferreira, from HBO’s “Euphoria,” is one of the more exciting new stars, and she’s fantastic opposite Richardson.

The film is proudly pro-choice, and through its rather wacky adventure/road trip premise, it illustrates how ridiculous restrictions on reproductive rights are for young women and girls who have ambitions of higher education and career goals. It also fits into the recent trend of films made by women featuring personal stories about the challenges of seeking reproductive health care and abortion in the U.S.

Earlier this year, the Sundance Film Festival awarded a special jury prize to Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a film that is strikingly similar to “Unpregnant” but vastly different in tone and execution. Although the film’s theatrical run was thwarted this spring, it’s been available on VOD and digital ($5.99 rental on Amazon, iTunes, etc.) and is well worth the watch for Hittman’s sensitive and starkly neo-realistic depiction of a young woman and her cousin traveling from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion. It’s a harrowing journey, as the girls navigate the dangers of the city on their own. While “Unpregnant” is the kind of film where the characters shout about how frustrated they are that at their age they can’t access reproductive health care in their own state, “Never Rarely Always Sometimes” speaks volumes in the silences, especially in the scene that gives the film its title.

It’s a specific moment for this kind of film, one that treats reproductive freedom for women and the choices they make with their bodies and for their lives with humor and heart, and also with the gravity these decisions require. One could argue that this particular modern era of films was kicked off with Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 film “Obvious Child,” starring Jenny Slate (free on Kanopy, Showtime, Hoopla, Fubo and DirectTV or for $3.99 rental on iTunes or Amazon), about a young woman grappling with the decision to seek an abortion after a fling. It’s funny, sweet and made a movie star of Slate, and it features a charming supporting performance by Jake Lacy.

In 2019, Nia DaCosta made her directorial debut with the searing “Little Woods” (available on Hulu and Showtime), which combines two uniquely American health crises: the opioid epidemic and the lack of reproductive health care and abortion access. Tessa Thompson stars as Ollie, who has supported herself and her family selling cheap painkillers she smuggles from Canada to oil workers in their North Dakota boom town. Soon she has to make another trip across the border, with her sister Deb (Lily James), a young mother who is struggling with an abusive relationship and unplanned pregnancy. It’s a riveting film, and proves DaCosta as a director to watch: She’s helming the remake of “Candyman” that was due to release this year, and is now coming soon.

Another charming 2020 film on this theme is the SXSW winner “Saint Frances,” written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan as Bridget, a Chicago woman stuck in a cycle of arrested development, which manifests in some bad relationships. She decides to terminate an early pregnancy and spends the summer finding salvation and connecting with a wise sage of a new friend: the 5-year-old Frances, whom she’s nannying. It’s a special, heartwarming film about finding yourself with a little help from your friends, who come in all kinds of surprising forms. Stream “Saint Frances” for a $3.99 digital rental fee on all platforms.

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©2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Haley Lu Richardson as Veronica and Barbie Ferreira as Bailey in "Unpregnant." - Ursula Coyote/HBO Max/TNS
Haley Lu Richardson as Veronica and Barbie Ferreira as Bailey in "Unpregnant." - Ursula Coyote/HBO Max/TNS