‘Unpregnant’ Review: Haley Lu Richardson Hits the Road in HBO Max’s Edgy Teen Comedy

Two teens cross three states for an abortion and (mostly) outrun politics in Rachel Lee Goldenberg's post-'Juno' look at teen pregnancy.

Courtesy of HBO Max

Key Takeaways:

  • Rachel Lee Goldenberg's road trip comedy is heavy on charm, light on controversy

For the first time in her high school career, 17-year-old valedictorian Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) has flunked a test. That blue positive sign means she’s pregnant, and now she wants a redo — to become “Unpregnant,” in the words of director Rachel Lee Goldenberg (“Valley Girl”), who has a flair for the flip understatement. Goldenberg’s road-trip comedy, based on the novel by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, has no time for hemming and hawing. To obtain an abortion without her conservative parents’ permission, the popular blonde must make a 2,000-mile drive from Missouri to New Mexico in 48 hours, which, with Type-A aplomb, she calculates is doable if she stops only for bathroom breaks and, like, the actual procedure.

But Veronica’s plan for a speedy, super-secret abortion has one flaw: The only person able to chauffeur is her former best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a punkish screw-up who hasn’t been invited to Veronica’s birthday parties since she drunkenly puked on her cake. And, if Bailey’s being honest, she doesn’t care if the rest of their senior class realizes her former best friend isn’t as picture-perfect as she pretends to be on Instagram. “So you’re hiding this from your man, your best friends and your Jesus-freak parents, and you thought, ‘Why not ask Bailey Butler to drive me hundreds of miles because she probably doesn’t have anything to do anyway?’” sneers Bailey. “Kind of, yes,” Veronica admits. At least she’s honest.

The duo’s path to Planned Parenthood is derailed by unpredictable detours: several nosy cops, a truck full of Texan teenagers, one syrupy evangelical couple (Breckin Meyer and Sugar Lyn Beard, an always welcome presence) and a flirtatious demolition-derby driver (Betty Who) who revs Bailey’s engine. The film has a shaggy scene-by-scene charm that allows sequences to whiz by like ads for Burma Shave. It’s scripted so loosely that even scenes stacked together miss hammering home a larger point, like when Veronica, in a moment of frustration, extends two middle fingers at the Missouri State Legislature, and 30 seconds later, befriends an anti-government paranoiac named Bob (Giancarlo Esposito), who agrees to help her out for a chunk of cash and the chance to stick it to the man. Perhaps the two could have a deeper conversation when she, too, has a few more decades of cynicism and a Bowie knife under her belt.

Yet, Goldenberg is adamant about her film’s destination. “Unpregnant” isn’t interested in the will-she-or-won’t-she drama of second-guessing Veronica’s resolve, not even when her boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) whips out an engagement ring. (Kevin is bad news, but he’s thankfully no sour, selfish cliché.) By scuttling the moral debate, Goldenberg gives her leads time to charm each other — and the audience. Between “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Support the Girls,” Richardson has built a résumé of winning naifs, enriching characters who might otherwise be played as bimbos or squares.

As for Ferreira, her rough-and-tumble joy makes for a fantastic big-screen debut following her breakout role in HBO’s “Euphoria.” With her shaggy green hair and matching Oscar the Grouch backpack, she’s costumed like a cartoon — there’s a pit stop gag where she mutates into the Creature From Beyond the Chip Aisle, clutching a Slushie in each paw — but her confidence and sense of play make a good foil for Richardson’s insecure teen dream. You can enjoy — if not entirely buy — the way the two frenemies soften each other’s edges.

Together, Veronica and Bailey represent the pragmatic, know-it-all new generation of young feminists who move with clarity, even when they’re running from a camper van with a four-foot cutout of a toddler pasted to the front grill. (Wanna feel old? When they whoop it up to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” they’re belting a golden oldie from the year they were born — and the baby in “Juno,” a film that could only awkwardly mumble “schmaschmortion,” would now be a freshman in their school.) Yet, Goldenberg nods to the older generations who paved their road, In a terse, but tender scene, a woman (Jeryl Prescott) silently takes stock of the girls’ situation and cuts them a break — before threatening to sew them together like “a human centipede.”

Occasionally, “Unpregnant” pumps the brakes for a few minutes of practical information, including a step-by-step breakdown of what Veronica can expect if/when the twosome reach Albuquerque: “I’ll walk you through the whole process,” says a nurse, as a gentle, noodling song slides into the score and the camera transitions from soft focus shots of syringes to a POV shot of an anesthesiologists’ mask that makes the whole world go calm and blurry. It’s as comforting as a prescription drug commercial, which could send some parents into a conniption. But “Unpregnant” advocates loudest for allowing young women the space to make their own choices — and that they have friends, longtime or newfound, willing to help when they stumble.

‘Unpregnant’ Review: Haley Lu Richardson Hits the Road in HBO Max’s Edgy Teen Comedy

Reviewed online, Sept. 10, 2020. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 104 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Max release and presentation of a Warner Bros., Picturestart, Berlanti/Schechter Films production. Producers: Greg Berlanti, Erik Feig, Sarah Schechter. Executive producers: Lucy Kitada, Michael McGrath, Michael Sledd, Jessica Switch.
  • Crew: Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg. Screenplay: Goldenberg, Bill Parker, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, Jenni Hendricks, Ted Caplan. Natalie Krinsky. Camera: Doug Emmett. Editor: Julie Wong. Music: Roger Neill.
  • With: With: Haley Lu Richardson, Barbie Ferreira, Giancarlo Esposito, Alex MacNicoll, Breckin Meyer, Sugar Lyn Beard.