‘Unpregnant’ surpasses traditional coming of age stories

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 1:50pm

NOSELL

HBO Max

I’ve always wanted to go on a road trip. Particularly one filled with adventure and uncertainty, a road trip not unlike Percy Jackson’s quest in “The Lightning Thief,”  albeit without the mythical monsters and the impending wrath of the Greek gods. HBO’s latest original film “Unpregnant” takes the road trip premise and uses it to make the coming-of-age film mobile. Barbie Ferreira (“Euphoria”) as Bailey and Haley Lu Richardson (“The Edge of Seventeen”) as Veronica shine in this buddy film, with both actresses pushing the bounds of their characters.

But before I say anything else, I want to start by recognizing the privilege of the fact that I, personally, have never had a pregnancy scare. And even in the face of Michigan’s abortion laws regarding minors and parental consent, I’m relatively confident that my parents would have supported whatever decision I wanted to make. 

That said, however, what better thing is there to bring two young girls together than the ending of an unwanted pregnancy? Though HBO’s flippant attitude toward abortion may seem insensitive, the network’s casual tone toward teen sex and its ramifications reads as an attempt to destigmatize the choice to end a pregnancy. The film’s depiction of the emotional trauma associated with this kind of decision underscores the notion that abortion shouldn’t be a lonely affair. And even if no one in your immediate circle fully gets it, there are still other women out there experiencing the same thing. 

While much of the film relates the story through comedy, the creators still understand the gravity of what they’ve chosen to showcase. During the most critical moments of Veronica and Bailey's experience, viewers are reassured that the characters will be safe and are cared for. Veronica’s anxiety over the procedure seems to lessen with every explanation of the steps to the surgical abortion. And yet, while Ferreira and Richardson’s wisecracking antics help move the film along, it is the ethereal lighting in the peak of the abortion appointment that brings the story home. Veronica is shown in a soft, bright white light throughout her experience at the clinic. It’s as if she’s placed in the astral plane, while still humanizing the process with the character’s admission of nerves. 

This mixture of regret and relief allows “Unpregnant” to connect with its audience on both an emotional and humorous level. Both Richardson and Ferreira show incredible range as they move from genre to genre — one minute the audience is watching a typical teen drama, and the next the two characters are walking through a horror film. What is particularly enjoyable to watch is Ferreira’s shifting personalities. She fluidly moves from the confident and carefree sidekick to the main character trying to embrace her fears and insecurities. We watch as she becomes less self-assured, her understanding of her place in the world wavering — a feeling that most everyone experiences more than once in their lifetime. 

At the same time, “Unpregnant” surveys the struggles of teenagers growing up in the age of the internet. Veronica’s preoccupation with her online and public presence, while grappling with the life-changing decision of whether or not to have a child, highlights these struggles and the dichotomy of identities that social media often fosters in its users. This isn’t to say that social media doesn’t have its benefits, but it’s also difficult not to wonder what people think of you. Veronica’s fixation on what will happen to her popularity or her relationship with her parents is understandable and effectively highlights the especially prominent fact that our obsession with societal stigmas is isolating. The development of a coming-of-age story that is focused on internal struggles about a sense of self rather than the consequences of dating a boy creates a sense of authority around the existence of a woman beyond the needs of the patriarchy. 

The director of “Unpregnant,” Rachel Lee Goldenberg, has an innate understanding of the kind of embellished teen experience that makes for fantastic college essay fodder. Friends are remade and identities are forged, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. If I was more convinced of the existence of time machines, I would desperately wish to hop in and find the kind of cinematic experience of youth that this film evokes.

Daily Arts Writer Emma Chang can be reached at emmacha@umich.edu