Rachel Lee Goldenberg delivers earned laughs and important truths in Unpregnant, a charming road trip comedy with something important to say.
This review of Unpregnant (HBO Max) is spoiler-free.
There’s probably no way of making a film about abortion that’s entirely comedic, but Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant, streaming on HBO Max, makes an admirable attempt to lighten the heavy load carried by young, pregnant women who decide that now’s probably not the best time to become a mother. Since Juno, and indeed this year’s excellent Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the subject of teen pregnancy has been fertile – probably a bad choice of words there – territory for small-scale indie filmmaking. Goldenberg’s softer, lighter spin on that material certainly brings more laughs to the subgenre than usual, but also its share of touching truths, hard decisions, and valuable insights.
It also brings a dynamite double-act in its stars, Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira. The ever-dependable Richardson plays Veronica, a popular and switched-on high-school senior with the whole world ahead of her and a fractured family unit behind her that includes an absentee father, a deeply religious mother (Mary McCormack), and an older sister who started what suddenly seems like a trend of getting pregnant much too young. Thus, Unpregnant opens with Veronica taking a pregnancy test in the high school bathroom and learning she’s carrying her boyfriend’s (Alex MacNicoll) baby – a predicament that, purely by chance, she comes to share with her former bestie turned outcast eccentric, Bailey (Ferreira).
From the off, the palpable chemistry between these two radiates from the script penned by Goldenberg, Bill Parker, and Jennifer Kaytin alongside Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, who wrote the same-titled 2019 book on which the film is based. The obvious point of comparison is Booksmart, but the dynamic is slightly different and the subject heavier; Veronica and Bailey have a predictable road to travel from a former friendship to a current one, but also a much more treacherous route to Albuquerque, the nearest state that’ll allow a minor to get an abortion without parental consent.
The flawed system surrounding the bodily autonomy of young women isn’t a laughing matter, which is why it’s such a boon to be led through it by such instantly likable, believable characters. Unpregnant knows this about itself and trusts its stars to keep things on the right track when the material lurches into much more serious territory, both emotionally and politically. It’s a buddy comedy that nonetheless has important things on its mind and the courage to say them out loud; the fact it’s a very good, very clever buddy comedy makes all of this possible by imbuing familiar beats with fresh personality and occasionally turning expected tropes on their heads.
That Unpregnant is able to put a new spin on what seems to be a burgeoning subgenre, especially so soon after a similar offering in Never Rarely Sometimes Always that stands out as one of the best of the year, is high praise for the comedy. Releasing it on a fledgling streaming platform is a smart move too; it’s a film that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Hopefully, it will be.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.