From the Archives: ‘Unpregnant’ and the Ultimate Reproductive-Rights Road Trip
Editor’s note: this piece originally ran in 2020. We’re re-posting here with minor edits. Unpregnant is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
As longtime connoisseurs of a good poster tagline, the quip used by the marketing ninjas at HBO Max to sell their new comedy Unpregnant, definitely gave us a lot the chew on: “She’s a Type A without a Plan B.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the film itself—economical, clever and refreshingly direct about its central topic; namely, the challenges faced by young women seeking to obtain an abortion in a nation (ours) where reproductive rights have been steadily eroding, resulting in few options and increasingly desperate measures.
Co-written and directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg—a former house director at fan-favorite B-movie factory The Asylu, as well as numerous comedy projects including the Lifetime Network spoof A Deadly Adoption—Unpregnant follows estranged high school BFFs Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) along a raucous series of road-trip misadventures, as the duo seek to make it from Missouri to Arizona and back again over the course of a single weekend. The mission? For Veronica to obtain secret, but legal, abortion.
Sure, it may sound heavy. But Goldenberg’s big-hearted romp—adapted from the YA novel by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks—is far more Booksmart (or even Tommy Boy) than it is Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And on September 18, Goldenberg joined guest moderator Carla Renata (The Curvy Film Critic) for a special live Members-only Q&A to talk about the film, part of our ongoing Film Independent Presents slate of programming.
Seriously fun. Renata asked Goldenberg if she found it difficult balance the film’s subject matter with her natural comedic touch. “Tone was obviously really important to this film,” she said. “I like movies that aren’t easy to define, films that draw from different references; I like keeping it fresh.” She cited the film’s centerpiece car chase as an example of this dynamism—an unexpected moment of madcap energy that arrives organically out of the tense scenes preceding it. And rather than making fun of the issue of abortion (as some people online have speculated) she says that, “the comedy all comes from how difficult it is to obtain an abortion—putting a comedic spin on that, the journey.”
Good chemistry. “I’m so lucky to have Haley and Barbie in this movie,” gushed Goldenberg. She and Richardson had actually worked together before on the 2013 Lifetime movie Escape from Polygamy, and had wanted to work together again ever since. Finding the right Bailey was a bit more difficult. Goldenberg had taken note of Ferreira in HBO’s Euphoria, but was initially unsure that she would be the right fit for Barbie—a very different character. But the director was sold after an excellent audition and successful chemistry read with Richardson.
Entertaining and actionable. Though the Unpregnant production had no official partnership with any Pro-Choice organization during filming, Goldenberg took a tour of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles in order to research the facility and the surgical abortion process—insight that led her to refine certain sequences in her film. “They were instrumental in how I able to think about that,” she says.
A circuitous path to success. Taking an audience submitted question, Renata asked Goldenberg to describe how she got her start as well as any industry advice she might have. “I definitely didn’t start during a global pandemic—so I’m don’t know if I have the perfect pandemic advice,” she laughed. Her journey started in film school and led to The Asylum (Sharknado, Z Nation) and later Funny or Die. “I loved just getting to work on stuff, not even thinking long term,” she said. “I just know I wanted to be writing and directing sooner rather than later”—leading her to favor taking on larger roles on smaller projects, rather than the inverse.
It’s not streaming, it’s HBO. Renata asked Goldenberg how she became involved with the project and just when, exactly, fledgling streamer HBO Max came onboard to be the film’s distributor. Unpregnant’s producers—among them, Greg Berlanti—brought Goldenberg onboard to do a re-write of the film’s script, and hiring her as director. Then HBO came onboard. “They have been nothing but supportive. It’s crazy, because it [abortion] can be such a controversial topic, I kept expecting them to put their foot down.” But on the contrary, she says, the studio turned out to be completely supportive.
Tell your story. “For me, what I think is important is having a conversation about abortion,” said Goldenberg. “I’ve had an abortion—it’s something that, initially when I had it years ago, it wasn’t something I talked about.” Though she felt relieved and grateful for the procedure, she felt unspoken social pressure not to broadcast it. Goldenberg says that it’s her hope that Unpregnant and the discussion around the film will help normalize such conversations.
As part of its release, Unpregnant will be partnering, for certain events, with Planned Parenthood and Shout Your Abortion. To lean more, visit the film’s website. Unpregnant is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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