Have you ever finished watching something and wondered if anyone involved in making it has ever interacted with an actual person? I stared slack-jawed at UNPREGNANT for most of its running time, baffled by this purportedly serious film that takes place in an alternate universe where human behavior has been subsumed by goofy, sitcom face-pulling and hackneyed slapstick stereotypes. It’s a garish land of loud colors and even louder line readings, grotesquely mis-applying a Nick TV aesthetic to matters of grave importance. The whiplash dissonance is obscene.
Haley Lu Richardson stars as Veronica, a hyper-perky high school overachiever bound for Brown University in the fall, aghast one afternoon to discover that she’s pregnant. Being that she’s a minor in Missouri and there’s no way her super religious parents – who keep a painting of the Pope wearing shades on their mantelpiece – would ever sign a consent form, Veronica’s gotta go all the way to Albuquerque for an abortion. Due to plot contrivances too laboriously stupid to be recounted here, she winds up hitting the road in a stolen Trans Am with her estranged childhood BFF Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a green-haired gamer slob in every way the opposite of fussy, fastidious Veronica.
What follows is a wacky, squabbling road trip full of high-pitched hijinks and comic misadventures on the way to get an abortion. Astute readers may have already noticed this is an almost identical storyline to the recent “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” But where writer-director Eliza Hittman plumbed the grim realities of a young woman’s predicament with stark realism and devastating emotional honesty, “Unpregnant” is a happy-go-lucky lark, rife with silly chase scenes and upbeat musical montages. It’s gross.
Kooky supporting characters mug for the camera, shouting lame one-liners that beg for a laugh track and everybody generally avoids the subject that the story is ostensibly about. (You could swap out the reason for Veronica and Bailey’s journey – make it a college interview or something – and frightfully little of the movie would need to be rewritten.) It all plays like a very special episode of “Sam & Kat” in which Sam needs an abortion, and the massive mismatch between tone and content made me think of that scene in “Natural Born Killers” when Rodney Dangerfield viciously abuses his sitcom family to canned laughter and applause from a studio audience.
“Unpregnant” is based on a YA novel by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendricks, who are among five credited screenwriters here, along with director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. Eventually I grew exhausted watching them all bend over backwards with regard to Veronica’s boyfriend (Alex MacNicoll) trying to keep the character unsympathetic enough that we won’t mind her pawning the engagement ring he gave her so she can go run off and abort his child in secret, but he can’t be too much of a jerk because then we won’t understand why she was dating him in the first place. (Unsurprisingly, from scene to scene none of his behavior makes the slightest bit of sense.)
No subject should be considered off limits, and it is quite possible to make a comedy about abortion. Others enjoyed “Obvious Child” more than I, and this past spring’s “Saint Frances” had a refreshingly adult take on the topic. But what those movies have in common is that they took their characters and the situation seriously, acknowledging that a woman’s right to choose is a profound responsibility, and not just pretext for a bunch of crazy anecdotes like that time you and your old bestie bummed a ride from a survivalist limo driver in Amarillo.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.