Imagine Molly Ringwald’s and Ally Sheedy’s characters from “The Breakfast Club” on a wacky, adventure-filled road trip to get one of them an abortion and you’ll have an idea of the very special hell that awaits you in “Unpregnant,” a cringe-inducing female buddy film newly available on the HBO Max streaming platform.
Finding a consistent tone in tricky material is always hard, and it’s possible that the novel on which “Unpregnant” is based, by Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan, successfully combined the seriousness of the heroine’s predicament with facepalm comic disasters and a genuine bond of solidarity between two mismatched ex-best friends. By contrast, the movie, directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg and adapted for the screen by her with Bill Parker and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, leans on every convention in the girls-go-wild road movie book in a way that not only undercuts a desperate reality for millions of American women but at times seems to actively mock them.
A secondary tragedy is that the two lead performers, Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira, are both excellent and commit themselves to this acrid souffle like pros. The artlessly luminous Richardson has been one of the highlights of independent films like “Support the Girls” (2018) and “Columbus” (2017), and she’s just fine as Veronica, a straight-A perfectionist and one of her Missouri high school’s queen bees. The opening scene finds the character in the girl’s bathroom contemplating a pregnancy test stick with shock. She practiced safe sex with her sweet but dumb boyfriend (Alex MacNicoll)! She’s bound for Brown! This can’t be happening!
Unwilling to break the news to her extremely Christian parents or find support with her back-biting friends, 17-year-old Veronica hits the road to the nearest women’s clinic that doesn’t require parental consent — in Albuquerque, 1,000 miles away. Her companion is the class freak, Bailey (a delightfully live-wire Ferreira), a green-haired gamer-goth who was Veronica’s BFF way back in middle school. The plan is to get there, get the procedure, and get back by Sunday night with no one the wiser, and type-A Veronica has it all mapped out.
So, yes, the plot of “Unpregnant” is remarkably similar to that of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” the much-praised film festival winner that came out in theaters and on demand earlier this year. (Or perhaps not so remarkable, given the dire state of state restrictions on women’s health facilities and the lengths to which they force desperate young women to go.) But where Eliza Hittman’s drama opted for a minimalist realism that built to a level of heartbreaking power, “Unpregnant” relies on cartoonish secondary characters, stock road-movie classic rock montages, and stale bits of business like the ex-buddies remembering the crossing-state-lines hand jive routine from when they were kids. There are car chases and fairground kisses. There are singalongs. There are helpful Black people.
It’d all be congenial formula silliness if the goal were different, which is not to say a movie about abortion has to be as grim as, well, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” (Exhibit A: The fine 2014 Jenny Slate film “Obvious Child.” Exhibit B: The caustic 1996 Alexander Payne satire "Citizen Ruth.”) But the forced hijinks, sub-John Hughes emotional tropes, and Screenwriting 101 conventions — which include what can only be called Chekhov’s Taser — cut crassly against the grain of a subject that is fundamentally personal and inherently political. “Unpregnant” does give the stressed-out Veronica one scene where she tells the Missouri State Legislature where to stick it. And then it’s back to zany antics like the heroines fleeing across the desert from anti-abortion zealots (Breckin Meyer and Sugar Lyn Beard) who are chasing them in an RV festooned with images of smiling babies. Whee!
Veronica and Bailey deserve better. So do Richardson and Ferreira. So do the women of America. And so, dear reader, do you.
Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg. Written by Goldenberg, Bill Parker, and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, based on the novel by Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan. Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Barbie Ferreira. Available on HBO Max. 104 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic content, sexual content, strong language, some drug references).