As far as teen comedies go, the wild road trip that brings two former best friends back together is fairly standard material. That is until you introduce the touchy subject of teen pregnancy and abortion. Unpregnant blends the generally uplifting coming-of-age genre with headier social issues, and even though it’s not always tonally seamless, it hits the mark far more often than it misses. It features strong performances from its two female leads and an emotionally honest script that delivers a film that will speak to a generation that is more politically active, protective of their own bodily autonomy, and entirely aware of the legal challenges to their rights in that regard.
Veronica Clarke (Haley Lu Richardson) has a secret: she’s pregnant. Only it doesn’t stay a secret for long, as her estranged best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) finds her in the bathroom mid-pee test. Having this baby is not an option. Veronica is not particularly attached to the father, a well-meaning but totally clueless X-Games enthusiast, and raising a child while finishing high school does not have a place in her five-year plan.
There are just two potential problems, and they’re interrelated. One, her parents are devout Catholics who don’t believe in abortion. And even more problematic, she’s only seventeen years old, and the great state of Missouri won’t allow a minor to obtain an abortion without parental consent. You see the issue. And unfortunately, the closest place for Veronica to get an abortion without her parents finding out is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a journey of 1000 miles from her hometown. So she enlists the reluctant Bailey, who has access to a car and, despite her misgivings, is always up for an adventure.
But the wacky shenanigans of these two teens on a cross-country road trip are muted by the underlying rage that they even have to jump through these hoops in the first place. Throughout the film, they face these sorts of bizarre, random setbacks that are a staple of the road trip genre — their car turns out to be reported stolen, which means they’re forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to make it the rest of the way to Albuquerque. Some are genuinely well-intentioned while others are less so, like the pair of anti-abortion fanatics who are willing to kidnap them to prevent Veronica from keeping her appointment at the clinic.
These would be just run of the mill comedic bits in an ordinary road trip, but here they highlight the extreme and unfairly dangerous situations we force teenagers to put themselves into simply because right-wing politicians have worked so hard to limit abortion access. If they were doing this trip all for one last hurrah of their senior year, or to rekindle a long-neglected friendship, that would be one thing — but they’re risking it all so that Veronica can get a procedure that should be available at clinics all over her home state.
The sequence that occurs at the clinic depicting the process of getting an abortion clearly steps into the territory of just straight-up providing information for viewers. It would seem heavy-handed if it weren’t so rare to hear the logistics of abortion discussed openly and frankly and without judgment. In the end, it comes across as oddly comforting. As much as conservative politicians would like to maintain the stigma against abortion and make you think you’re alone in this massive, frightening decision, you are not alone.
Haley Lu Richardson continues her run of being one of the best parts of any teen comedy, carving out her own path with roles that allow her to play sort of the straight man while still having a touch of endearing quirkiness. Between this film and last year’s Euphoria, Barbie Ferreira has officially burst onto the scene, complete with a huge personality and charisma to spare. Together, they build out a believably fractured friendship, one that clearly contains magnitudes and has a significant history. Their chemistry with one another, even when they’re doing a fairly standard Odd Couple routine, is responsible for much of the film’s success.
Despite all of its merits, it’s hard not to see Unpregnant as a slightly inferior version of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a film that also came out this year and features similar themes. But Unpregnant finds moments to distinguish itself, and is a funny, at times frustrating, and always a thoughtful contribution to the genre, one that shines a light on a controversial topic that deserves attention now more than ever.