Unpregnant is currently streaming on HBO Max.
By Palmer Rubin
Partially deflated by the existence of Booksmart and Never Sometimes Rarely Always, which has become sort of the main point of its contention, the clumsily named but still very wholesome Unpregnant does something most films aren’t able to do all that well: it takes a premise done a million times before and commits fully and without shame to the familiar beats. Those two previous films hang over it (even though it was apparently completed before either of those films hit theaters, natch), but it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. The formula is pretty solid: take two up-and-coming actresses, have them embark on an unconventional road trip while solidifying their bond as friends. Are they held back by toxic familial and romantic influences that the other is there to get rid of? Absolutely. Do they encounter kooky characters with agendas of their own? You betcha. It is, by all accounts, a film that shouldn’t possibly work.
And yet it does. Part of why really heads down to Haley Lu Richardson (wonderful in Columbus and Support the Girls, themselves subversive takes on genre staples) and Barbie Ferreira (one of the more notable parts of infamous HBO show “Euphoria”) bouncing off one another and knowing how to play the hits from those who came before. Richardson plays an uptight evangelical goody-goody whose boyfriend intentionally sabotages a condom to trap her in domestic servitude, Ferreira plays an obsessive burnout abandoned by her own family and trying to survive as a closeted lesbian in a religious town (neither of those plot points are big spoilers, by the way, it’s established very fast). The film plays the familiar beats while remixing them around people with a lot more nuance and built up hurt than you might expect. This is never treated with too much melodrama and given a lot more subtlety than the rest of this comedy might expect, but I was also really shocked that this otherwise goofy comedy has such a dark subtext it doesn’t shy away from.
This being what it is, the secret road trip between estranged friends to get one of them an abortion has a predictable ending, so the film addresses that by commentating on previous portrayals of abortion in media. Sometimes that’s a high speed car chase with occupants of both vehicles screaming statistics at each other, sometimes it’s raging monologues about the utter depravity and sadism of Republican politics. Some might feel lectured to in those moments, even as they’re intended to be more about venting frustrations than getting on soapboxes, the film already takes for granted that America has the worst reproductive rights and the worst healthcare on the planet. It’s a given that confronted with these inhumane systems that our pregnant evangelical is going to lose her faith as a result, and so the film cheekily takes the exact opposite trajectory of a billion godawful faith-based films, often replicating and then reversing the exact beats as a series of defiant eyeball pokes to the kind of people who would hate this film.
But again, it’s not especially preachy about this, and it understands debating these issues gives legitimacy to those who mean people with uteruses harm. In spite of what it’s aiming to do, it helps that it’s pretty goddamn funny, with Richardson and Ferreira clicking so well together that they feel like the natural successors to Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. This one is strange because it handles its overall point way better than Booksmart does but just isn’t nearly as funny. Booksmart was widely criticized for not examining its portrayal of the wealthiest high school students in all of California nearly enough, and using the various political issues it dipped its toe into as aesthetic rather than actual calls to action or advocating for anything at all. Unpregnant, on the other hand, has a portrayal of the actual process of terminating a pregnancy itself that feels quietly radical and speaks to a far more genuine place despite not having nearly as many jokes that land. One would think that a perfect synthesis of both films, each with their own respective strengths, would be possibly the funniest teen comedy of the past 20 years.
But at the same time, Unpregnant is just an overall treat of a film, with two stupendous lead performances that carry the film on their backs even when it falters. Sometimes you really need the equivalent of cinematic comfort food, like a meal you’ve already had a thousand times before, but is made with freshly grown ingredients grown as ethically as possible. You’ve had a burger a thousand times before, but this burger is juicy coming right off the grill, the bun is freshly baked and the greens and tomato coming right out of the garden. It’s not a new dish that challenges your palette, but this is what you need right now. I think this is what I needed right now, and I think it’s a film that argues that perhaps telling the same story as others can have its own benefits. Nothing about this film, other than its frank depiction of abortion and the chemistry of its leads, could really distinguish itself, but that’s not the point. That in itself is not a bad thing. Some films you watch and feel gross afterwards, or feel like you didn’t have enough. I felt like I got just what I needed out of that. You’ll never say no to that tried and true pasta dish or scrambled eggs or whatever strikes your fancy.
When I was younger, I so badly wanted to make films that were so groundbreaking that audiences would be stunned out of their seats, but the older and more wizened up me would be damn glad to be offered a chance to work on a project like this. I hope Richardson and Ferreira go far in their careers, if this is any indication. It’s nice to see films where you get the indication the performers genuinely like each other as people and that imbibes into the performance. It’s often something to witness a film playing out a beat you’ve seen but it trusts in the development of its characters to play that beat through. Originality is sort of like chasing the dragon. I don’t say this as an expert, but as someone similarly trying to figure out how to tell stories of my own: don’t be afraid to make something like someone else did it. Don’t pretend you’re the first to do it. Audiences like seeing variations on tried and true favorites, if the reception to this is any indication. It’s the variations and the wrinkles that will draw them in.
So go off and make a dumb goofy comedy.