The world really has changed. Just eight months after Eliza Hittman’s searing “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” made its debut at Sundance, becoming one of the year’s best films in the process, fledgling streamer HBO Max has already unveiled its own much more comedic take on the apparently booming “abortion road trip” subgenre. But while Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s comedy might sound like a lighter spin on Hittman’s earthy drama, the charming “Unpregnant” still earns its own hard truths alongside some very big laughs.
Veronica (the always delightful Haley Lu Richardson) is a high school superstar, bound for Brown in the fall but still very busy living out the waning days of her super-fun senior year. Mega-popular and mega-smart, Veronica has a tight-knit pack of girlfriends (that the other members of the foursome seem to operate with one brain is more than just a joke) and a devoted boyfriend (Alex MacNicoll). Her Instagram account is popping, but is also filled with meaningless material (#SelfCare) that offers no real insight into her life. And her life is a bit complicated, as we soon learn about her very religious mom (Mary McCormack in a small role), her older sister who got pregnant when she was way too young, and a dad who skipped out on the whole clan when the going was getting even remotely rough.
It’s about to get much more complicated, however, as Goldenberg’s comedy opens with Veronica already in the throes of a potential crisis: she’s taking a pregnancy test in the dingy bathroom of her high school, and the results are not going to be awesome. Enter Bailey Butler (Barbie Ferreira), colorful teen outcast, perhaps one of the few people who can make a tired “Juno” joke fly, and Veronica’s ex-BFF. When a jittery Veronica flings her test out of her stall, it’s Bailey — somehow both the best and the worst person to be standing right there — who grabs it, intent on helping whoever is in trouble. Too bad it’s Veronica.
Based on the book by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan (both of whom contributed to the script, alongside Goldenberg, Bill Parker, and “Sweet/Vicious” creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson), Goldenberg’s film captures the chemistry between Richardson and Ferreira immediately. Despite their fraught history — later detailed by way of both an unnecessary flashback and a very welcome screaming match — the actresses instantly spark to each other, pure joy to watch share the screen. That they will eventually find their way back to BFFship is the obvious pleasure of “Unpregnant,” which occupies the same space as other recent friendship-centric films like “Booksmart,” “Blockers,” and “The Edge of Seventeen” (also featuring Richardson).
Still, Veronica isn’t initially receptive to letting Bailey back into her life, and Bailey balks when she realizes she’s somehow gotten entangled all over again with the pal who broke her heart. Type A Veronica sets about mapping (literally) her own path to getting an abortion, one made all the more complicated by the fact that Missouri, her home state, won’t allow a minor to get the procedure without parental consent. Her closest option: Albuquerque, many hours and entire states away.
While “Unpregnant” initially approaches the legal complications Veronica faces — the same legal complications that power “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” — as more of a logistical hurdle, rather than an emotional or political one, the film does eventually work up to more pointed critiques about the flawed system. While some viewers might feel a touch of whiplash when “Unpregnant” turns more serious, Goldenberg is smart to couch the film’s more controversial ideas inside a frisky film populated by characters that are easy to love. Suddenly, abortion laws feel, well, personal, even if the audience watching “Unpregnant” has never had to navigate them on their own.
Veronica doesn’t need to navigate them on her own, either. After meticulously planning a road trip to New Mexico to do the deed, and finding out in short order that her trio of best pals are not up for the task (they’re much more interested in outing the owner of an, oops!, positive pregnancy test found in the school’s trash) and her sweet boyfriend Kevin might be an actual moron, Veronica turns to the only person who can help her: Bailey. Mostly bored and entirely intrigued, the zany Bailey shoves Veronica into a (not totally hers) muscle car, and the duo hit the road in search of surgical-issued freedom.
Few of the beats that follow are particularly surprising — of course Veronica and Bailey are going to rekindle their friendship in fits and starts, obviously they’re going to meet some wacky new pals along the way, surely there will be horrible surprises that turn into funny gags — but Richardson and Ferreira are so delightful to watch zip through even the most predictable of paces, it’s hard to get mad at any of it. Goldenberg’s film does throw in a few shockers, including a subplot involving Sugar Lyn Beard and Breckin Meyer that is somehow both totally insane and hugely believable (especially for viewers paying attention to the religious themes that are littered throughout the film). The filmmaker, who just this year also debuted her long-gestating “Valley Girl” remake, also has a taste for upending occasional tropes, and some of her funny twists on genre-specific gags are truly inspired.
While Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” seems destined to remain the standout in this fledgling — and, yes, necessary and deeply informative — subgenre, Goldenberg’s film happily illuminates how many other ways this story can be told. Bolstered by winning, real performances from its leads, “Unpregnant” will delight as much as it stings, a sterling reminder of how many stories about this very subject are still demanding to be told.
“Unpregnant” will be available to stream on HBO Max starting on Thursday, September 10.