October Baby (2012)
Abortion and the rights of choice are topics that inspire intense feelings on all sides. October Baby is the latest evangelical movie to be funded by Provident Films, who gave us Courageous and Fireproof. The directing tandem of Andrew and Jon Erwin take a more melodramatic approach, focusing on the aftereffects of not just abortion but also the aborted.
Hannah (Rachel Hendrix) is a 19-year-old college student who collapses during the opening night of her big play. She learns from her family doc that her parents (Jennifer Price, John Schneider) have been keeping some pretty major secrets from her. She was adopted. She was the survivor of a failed late-term abortion. Also, she had a twin brother who did not survive the abortion. Suddenly Hannah’s physical and mental maladies make sense, and she’s determined to seek out her biological mother and find out more about whom she is. Her lifelong best friend, Jason (Jason Burkey), invites her on a road trip to New Orleans, and the two of them veer off to Mobile, Alabama to look for her mother. Over the course of Hannah’s journey, she will come face-to-face with the mother that tried to abort her.
Like other heavily funded Christian productions, this is more of a message than a movie, which is a shame because it had the potential to rise above. I guess there are no spoonfuls of sugar accountable when you’re dealing with a subject as painful and raw as abortion. I’ll give October Baby credit for being less interested in sermonizing. Oh sure, you’ll never doubt where the movie stands on the issue and where it wants its audience to go. The fact that a former clinic nurse can recall, in graphic detail, a procedure that was done over 20 years ago seems a tad suspicious, but credit actress Jasmine Guy (TV’s A Different World) for nailing this scene. The movie makes a more sincere, modest approach and sidesteps the overt proselytizing of the Kendrick brothers’ pictures like Fireproof and Courageous. It’s a fervent melodrama, yes, but it doesn’t push its message in your face. The issues of faith are seemingly kept to a minimum. Though soft-pedaling the admittedly traumatic story of abortion into a dewy coming-of-age movie seems like a disservice to the drama at play. This is more than one girl just finding out where she came from. This is more than just a routine road trip. This is more than tropes and clichés. This is about the pain of making agonizing decisions and living with them. What about Hannah’s biological mother? There’s a wealth of dramatic potential there as mother comes face-to-face with the teenage daughter she decided to abort. Just having her reject Hannah all over again to later cry against a doorway seems like a lousy use of screen time. Clearly this woman did not come to this decision impulsively. And yet, October Baby is less interested in exploring the realities of abortion than ascribing psychological torment to all parties (the mother, the baby, the nurse, etc.) and providing a clear, and somewhat contrived, road to redemption and forgiveness.
If we’re going to feel for these people, they need to feel like recognizable people and not as mouthpieces for message points. We’re told via Hannah’s journal that she’s deeply depressed and contemplating suicide. However, this mental misery does not match the Hannah we have seen on screen at all. I also find it really hard to believe some of her ailments. I’ll buy that she has long-lasting physical problems from the failed abortion, including asthma, seizures, and hip issues that require surgery. What I don’t buy is that somehow the act of abortion left a psychic scar on this girl and she has gone her entire life feeling unwanted, which is more than a little specious considering her adoptive parents have been unwavering in support and paid for all those costly operations. It’s not too long before we realize that Hannah is really just the formless mass of producer ideology. She makes weird decisions, like forcing her platonic friend to sleep on the floor when they have to share a hotel room, and then after blurting out, for no reason, that she is a virgin, she leaves the room that she paid for to sleep on a couch in the lobby. And her platonic friend joins her, so it’s acceptable for them to sleep side-by-side on a couch rather than a bed? That makes no sense. Hannah doesn’t feel like a person, more like a series of plot points in human form, and her ridiculously happy ending seems a tad disingenuous given the dramatic reveals this woman has endured. Her anger would feel more justifiable if she were more represented as a character.
Let me deal with the romantic relationship with Hannah and Jason. They’re life-long best friends and the movie even opens with them as smiling children, holding hands and racing to jump into a lake. You can only imagine where the two of them are destined to end up. He even has a standoffish girlfriend (Colleen Trusler) that doesn’t like the amount of time Jason spends with his “friend” Hannah. I believe that her resentment is well deserved considering how Jason dances around the truth of spending time with Hannah, often falling back on the shady vague rationalizations, “hanging with… a friend… doing… nothing.” As much as Hannah lacks proper characterization, besides being victimized, Jason is also every sweet, nice, good guy trope rolled into a human being. He’s less a person than a human-sized version of a loyal puppy ready to lap at her face. He never seems to have any interests or desires or goals other than being there for his dearest platonic pal, and even when she’s behaving like a mad woman, he sticks by her. Their eventual coupling is so chaste and passionless that, while inevitable from the opening image, makes little in the way of payoff. Both of these people are rather bland and nice, so why not be bland and nice together and have bland and nice children who will marry their spouses before they sleep in the same bed together (couches are another story). For a story about teenagers ignoring their parents’ wishes and getting into trouble with the law twice, including breaking and entering (because really abandoned hospitals leave behind all their patient info), there’s nary a hint of danger or excitement.
October Baby looks a lot more professional than the other notable Christian releases that have found themselves in the mainstream marketplace. The photography is actually quite good, bathing Hannah’s journey in an amber, honeyed glow, and the Erwin brothers have a knack for visually pleasing compositions. Their background in music videos really shows, especially during the movie’s montage sequences. The music, on the other hand, is horribly redundant; lots of twinkling pianos and soft acoustic guitar. Former 2007 American Idol contestant Chris Sligh contributes several low-key tunes to the soundtrack and actually plays the overweight driver for the road trip. He’s fat, so you know he’s going to be a source of comedy, though you’ll be hard-pressed to realize it.
Acting-wise, October Baby is also a step up from what we’ve seen recently. Hendrix (Alumni), despite a somewhat surly characterization, is quite able to handle the many, many crying moments she’s run through. She’s got a fresh face and hopefully she’ll find her footing in the film world. She at least deserves to have as big a career as Kirk Cameron. Burkey (For the Glory) does earnest well and that’s about the only note he gets to play. Schneider (TV’s Dukes of Hazard) provides a calming presence, even though his beach bum haircut felt off-putting for a surgeon. I kept staring at Schneider onscreen and thinking how strangely he resembled Beau Bridges (The Descendants). The best actor in the movie is Hannah’s biological mother played by Shari Rigby (Easy Rider: The Ride Back). Sure she gets a crying jag all her own, but the actress underplays the mixed emotions upon the confrontation with her past. I wish the movie had concentrated more on this storyline, and more with this actress. The closing credits include a touching interview with Rigby where she confesses relating to her character and the abortion she had in her youth. Those brief couple minutes come across as more honest, engaging, and moving than any of the fictional drama that preceded it.
When the topic concerns abortion, it’s always going to be a controversial movie no matter the stance. October Baby is not exactly nuanced but it’s a lot gentler than I ever would have imagined. The entire movie takes a cue from its bland but pleasant leads and produces an overwhelmingly bland but pleasant enough experience. There’s no demonization of pro-choice people and few scenes of absolute sermonizing. Clearly the movie has an agenda but it doesn’t feel so overwhelmingly dogmatic. It’s not exactly going to make people rethink their political stances on a hot-button issue, but then again a rather humdrum story with characters that don’t feel recognizably human is only going to affect the audience members who are there for the message, not the movie.
Nate’s Grade: C