I did not have “goofy teenage road trip comedy about the difficulties of a teenager exercising her reproductive rights in the United States” on my fun movies to watch bingo card, but, wow, am I glad it popped up. UNpregnant tries to cram a lot of things into its hour and 43 minute runtime, which sometimes makes it feel a bit unwieldy and overwhelming, but the movie’s grounding in a very real and serious situation, the dazzling chemistry between the two leads, the focus on their somewhat broken, but redeemable friendship, combined with a lot of sharp humor more than keeps it all afloat.
Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is the kind of teenager who does everything by the book. A high-achieving student with perfectly wavy blonde hair and well-paired outfits that hug her small frame, she’ll likely be class valedictorian. Her best friends are the bright, shiny popular girls, who are not super interesting, but are the right choice for someone planning to remain on top of the social hierarchy. She maintains a carefully curated instagram feed with vague captions like “vibes” and “self care” in part because it looks good for places like Brown, where she plans to attend college. She’s a careful planner and strategizer about everything, including her sex life. She and her cute-enough-but-dull-as-dishwater boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) always use a condom, which she knows are 98.7% effective. So she’s more than a little confused and panicked when a pregnancy test comes back positive. It turns out condoms are way less effective when they break during sex and your problematic boyfriend doesn’t tell you about it until you’re pregnant enough to miss a period and he’s proposing marriage in the middle of a restaurant. (What the actual fuck, Kevin?!?)
(Side note: Do I wish that, once again, the central character was not a blonde haired white girl? I do, indeed. Though, the (very small) cast of characters is nowhere near as glaringly white as in most movies. Bailey (and the actress who plays her) is of Brazilian descent, and Veronica’s besties are white, Asian, and Black. And, the only people who come close to being villains are most definitely the definition of white. In four separate situations Veronica and Bailey are helped out of sticky situations by Black or brown people. Another reviewer wondered if this was furthering the trope of the Black savior, which is a concern I understand, but I’m not sure if that’s what’s happening here.)
Even though at first she can’t bring herself to say the word, Veronica never has any doubt that she wants an abortion. Her sister had a baby when she was young, and, while it worked out for her, it’s not what Veronica wants for herself. The problem is her parents, who are very Catholic, would most certainly not agree, and the closest place to procure an abortion without their permission is Albuquerque, NM, which is some 1,000 miles from her home in Missouri. (This appears to be absolutely true and also seriously fucked up.) Only slightly daunted, Veronica draws up a plan and a budget and enlists the help of her former best friend Bailey Butler (Barbie Ferreira), who is decidedly not part of the bright and shiny set. (And thank goodness for that!) Bailey agrees to drive Veronica across several state lines in part because her mother has, once again, stood her up to go out with her weird boyfriend Fil and she’s lonely. Where Veronica is careful and always projects a facade of perfection, Bailey—with her taller and broader stature, black and green messy hair, mismatched oversized clothes, fuzzy green monster backpack, and sharp-tongued wit—could care less what other people think. She smokes pot behind the school, curses out other players on video games, and pretty much always says what’s on her mind. (Bailey’s muttered asides made me laugh out loud several times.) Although Bailey and Veronica stopped being friends years ago (around the time Bailey’s father ditched her for a life that didn’t include parental responsibilities), she’s still willing to go along for the adventure (and also probably because she misses Veronica and wants to help her out).
The two are obviously at odds from the start. Trying to defend Kevin as sweet, Veronica explains how he asked her out every day for a month until she said yes, and camped outside her window, which Bailey is quick to point out that while it seemed cute in Say Anything it’s actually stalking, adding “time’s up, and all that. That dude’s an actual stalker.” While Veronica wants to stick to her carefully crafted plan, Bailey is intent on making a side trip to Roswell and stocking up on gas station snacks and curios. Bailey brings along a taser and Veronica brings along paper copies of map routes. Of course, it’s equally clear that two go together like peanut butter and jelly, like ice cream and sprinkles, like mac and cheese, like kittens and the internet. As much as they argue, they also balance each other—Veronica is all thinking ahead and rule following and Bailey is all intuition and emotion—they need each other, and share a deep, though cracked, bond of childhood friendship. This includes having an entire seated dance routine for crossing state lines and speaking Klingon to each other, which will eventually get them out of a very tight jam. I can’t explain how good these two actresses are together. I know I should be able to use fancy sentences to explain it all to you, but all I’ve got is some general arm waving and some cries of “Aaaaagh! So good! Much chemistry! Do watch!”
Now, you know the trip is not going to be all stops at the Gas n’ Go and arguing about Clash lyrics and Kelly Clarkson. Things start to go sideways with the revelation that Bailey took Fil’s car without asking and, in order to evade the police, they are going to have to ditch it at a diner in the middle of nowhere. This leads to a cascading series of more and more wild events, including a trip to a local fair, Bailey’s first kiss, a near miss with some overzealous Christians (to her eternal credit, Bailey is skeptical about them from the start), a trek through the desert, and a failed attempt to catch a moving train. In truth, it starts to feel like the plot itself is going to spin pell-mell out of control, but just when it seems that center will not hold, the movie narrows its focus back to Veronica and Bailey’s relationship and, aided by a short, but amazing performance by Giancarlo Esposito as a small-town limo driver, the movie cruises toward an ending that feels satisfying and touching without ever losing its lighthearted and goofy energy.
Does it sound strange to call a movie about a teenager traveling hundreds of miles to get an abortion (that was completely avoidable had her boyfriend not been an utter tool) lighthearted and goofy? Based on the look my husband gave me when I said I had just finished watching a really funny movie about abortion, probably so. But here’s the thing, this movie manages to treat the issue of a teenage girl’s autonomy over her reproductive health with the utmost respect, while still finding ample room for joy. Quite frankly, it’s a fucking relief. Just because you’re discussing a uterus doesn’t mean you need to be a sourpuss! (I just made that up, but you’re free to use it as appropriate.) One of the reasons it’s able to balance both is because Veronica never equivocates about her decision to terminate the pregnancy. Yes, she has trouble saying the word and actually making the appointment, but it’s not because she’s unsure. It’s because she’s been raised to believe she should feel remorse and it’s hard to move past that. If that makes sense. In that way, the movie can treat abortion like the routine kind of healthcare for women that it should be, while also using irony and humor to point out how utterly ridiculous it is that Veronica and Bailey have to go on an epic quest to access a procedure that takes minutes to perform while her asshole boyfriend will suffer absolutely zero repercussions. (Oh, the hills are alive with the sound of patriarchal fuckwittery!) At one point, covered in dust from the desert, dehydrated, hungry, her clothes torn and her face sunburned, and having reached the very end of her rope, Veronica stands on empty train tracks in a desolate field and yells, “Why in the hell do you need parental consent to have an abortion, but not to birth a human child?!?” It’s both maddeningly true and hilarious in the moment.
Anyway, I would like to tell you each and every single thing that happens at the end because I have much to say about how they treated the scene at the abortion clinic, Kevin’s untriumphant return, Veronica’s interaction with her mom, what happens with the taser, and the restoration of Veronica and Bailey’s friendship, but I will refrain from ruining it for you. Please text me when you’ve watched it and we’ll discuss.