Abortion is one of the most hot-button cultural issues even almost 50 years after the landmark legal case made the procedure legal in the United States. Two 2020 movies elected to normalize the topic of abortion as a healthcare option but through very different approaches.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays out like a horror movie but not just with the hard-hitting reality of abortion access for many in this country, it’s also a horror movie about being a teenage girl in modern America. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is 17 years old, a budding musician, and about 18 weeks pregnant with the baby of her abusive boyfriend. She’s living in small-town Pennsylvania and the closest clinic that will treat her and not require parental permission and notification is in New York City. Her best friend, Skyler (Talia Ryder), steals a stash of cash from their supermarket job and books bus tickets to the big city. They travel on their own without informing their parents. However, the two girls must run around the city to jump through bureaucratic hoops while their dwindling money supply makes their options more desperate.
The movie is steeped in realism, which at different points comes across as an indictment on the burdens placed upon young women, but it’s also an understated case that wants to preach through its actions rather than any hokey soap box moments. Writer/director Eliza Hitman keeps things simple and to the bone for her narrative. We follow Autumn sneak out and try and get an abortion, only to have to wait longer and longer, with no place to stay overnight in a city she and her friend are unfamiliar with. I was fearing for both Autumn and Skyler as their stay increased and their money supply decreased. Just about every man depicted onscreen has an ulterior motive. Autumn’s boyfriend is controlling and abusive (inspiring a song Autumn performs for a school talent show in the opening scene). The supermarket boss insists on kissing the girls’ hands when they turn in their registers at the end of their shift. The creepy guy on the bus clearly has his sights set on Skyler. The guy on the subway just starts masturbating while staring at them. Being alone, far from home, and limited in means and transportation, you feel an overwhelming dread that something bad is going to happen to these two girls and it will be at the hands of men. They are victimized in small ways and large throughout their very existence. This dread does not go away until the very end of the movie. Skyler walks away to make some risky choices to earn needed money, and it’s not exaggerated but you do worry you may never see her again. Surely, many will reflect, it shouldn’t be this arduous for women to seek legal medical procedures, and when mostly-male legislators create extra burdens, it pushes desperate people into danger. At no point does anyone opine about body autonomy or anything overtly political. However, the movie’s entire function is to demonstrate these undue burdens.
Flanigan has been getting serious Oscar buzz for her performance and deservedly so. Autumn is definitely intended to be a relatable representation for many women going through similar struggles. Much of the performance relies upon her guarded acting through a veil of emotional detachment. She’s been ground down by her small town, by her family, by her abusive boyfriend and his jerk friends, and this can make her seem like a numb zombie at points. Autumn isn’t, though, she’s just trying to stay afloat from trauma and anxiety eating away at her. Flanigan has a quiet strength to her that keeps you pinned to the screen. She does have one standout scene that I’m sure would be her Oscar clip. At one New York clinic, an employee runs through a standard questionnaire (where the film gets its title from) and hits upon whether Autumn has been coerced into sex she didn’t want to have, and that’s when the emotions of Flanigan’s performance break through, her eyes welling with tears, her inability to answer while still answering. The off-screen employee recognizes the confirmations and responds with adept compassion. With that you also can glean how many times this clinic employee has heard these same gut-wrenching responses.
Beyond being a dread-filled horror movie of discomfort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always also becomes an unexpectedly touching movie about the great lengths that friends will go for one another. While there aren’t extensive conversations about how much they love one another, the actions speak for themselves, much like the rest of the understated movie. It’s Skyler who takes the lead in putting together this journey, keeping track of their progress, and eventually doing what needs to be done to gain money to go home. Both Skyler and Autumn support one another and rely upon one another and will go the extra mile for one another. A hand held tightly can be all the confirmation we need of their love and friendship during the most trying of times.
Unpregnant is easily the more entertaining and light-hearted of the 2020 abortion movies, using a raucous road trip of misadventures to reform the friendship of two high school girls. While applying a lighter touch (it is, after all, titled Unpregnant) it doesn’t trivialize the experiences of those making these choices. Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is 17 years old, the valedictorian, and 6 weeks pregnant, Her lousy X-Games-aspiring boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) thinks it means they’re meant to be together forever. Veronica is mortified and certain she’s not ready to be a mother, let alone having Kevin’s baby. She’s afraid to tell her parents, her snooty friends at school, and so the only ally she can find is the outcast Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a former friend with access to a working car. They must travel from Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico to find the nearest state and clinic without first requiring parental permission and notification.
Unpregnant is very much a road trip movie with the assorted mishaps along the way pushing the two teens together and reminiscing about how close they used to be as friends until going down separate paths in high school. Naturally, the formula calls for them to each confront their own personal demons, assert themselves, and reconcile, and it happens at regular pit stops, but that doesn’t mean that Unpregnant isn’t satisfying just because you suspect where it’s going. The overall comedic tone takes you off guard, at least it did for me, and it happens immediately. We’re used to movies where abortion is a central storyline being heavy and depressing (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), and when they do go for some degree of comedy, it’s usually quite dark (HBO’s Girls) or satirical (Citizen Ruth). Unpregnant lets you know right from its peppy start that it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to find humor in the awkwardness. It’s also okay to assess choices relating to an unplanned pregnancy without the stigma of shame or guilt. The movie doesn’t downplay the character’s dilemma, but instead of the conflict being whether she will keep the baby or not, the crux of conflict is, much like Never Rarely Always Sometimes, on equitable access to abortion services. Whereas that Sundance drama overwhelms with dedication to its real-life hardships and hurdles, Unpregnant chooses to take on these same hurdles with incredulous defiance and an F-you attitude that still feels political but aligned with its tone.
All road trips are dependent upon the co-pilots, and Unpregnant is an infectiously enjoyable experience spending time with Veronica and Bailey bantering and ultimately reconnecting. They are fun, and despite the circumstances that make this movie’s plot, they still find ways to have fun with one another. There’s an easy affection for one another that warms your heart. They clearly care about one another and watching them reunite and grow in their admiration for one another makes me like them even more. With any road trip movie, you must enjoy the people you’re stuck with. I appreciated both making amends of their past, why they fell out as friends, and what moments shaped each into being the headstrong woman they are today. Bailey uses this opportunity to try and reconnect with her absentee father. Veronica uses it to test her boundaries of what she felt needed sacrificing to stay on her master plan of academic success. Their kinship reminded me of Booksmart. The chemistry is so good, the dialogue snappy without being self-conscious, and the big dramatic moments nicely felt without being cloying, that Richardson (Split) and Ferreira (TV’s Euphoria) really feel like amusing best friends.
As per road trip comedy rules, we go from place to place getting into new hijinks. I appreciated that the mishaps don’t derail the light-hearted tone and direction even when they get broad. The girls become potential criminals when Bailey confesses their getaway vehicle might belong to her mom’s boyfriend and she might not have gotten his permission. This raises the stakes while still keeping things fun and feisty. A pit stop in Texas turns into a suspense thriller parody as the girls discover the kindly couple giving them a ride might be religious zealots who won’t let them leave. This leads to a wacky chase scene that ends in a hasty faked death and trying to jump onto a speeding train like “old timey hobos.” There’s also a running gag where Kevin keeps resurfacing, not exactly taking no for an answer, and arguing his nice guy credentials that aren’t being as respected as he deems necessary. For those worrying out there, Unpregnant does not condemn all men in this heightened universe or look upon them with dark suspicion.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that Veronica does, in fact, get to her appointment and have an abortion. I also think its noteworthy how this is portrayed and its aftermath. She’s lead through the different steps of the procedure with the calm instruction from an empathetic nurse, they don’t sensationalize any of the medical realities, and afterwards Veronica comes back home and has a heart-to-heart with her mother who, while admitting she would not make the same choice, still emphatically confirms her love for her daughter. Veronica also admits that she feels like she should feel bad or ashamed or guilty and she doesn’t. She feels relieved, she feels deep down that she made the right call. Never Rarely Sometimes Always covers this same ground with level-headed clarity but I think there’s something extra appreciative for Unpregnant. Between the two, this is going to be the more widely viewed film. Its very ambition is to be a crowd-pleasing road trip comedy built upon the bond of female friendship. I would expect an indie drama to try and normalize abortion, but it’s another thing when a light-hearted and readily accessible comedy (it’s PG-13!) has the sensitivity to normalize abortion. Many viewers will find this approach refreshing and helpful. The topic of abortion should never be made flippant but it doesn’t need to be a condemnation of inevitable ruination and regret either.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a hard-hitting drama that’s understated, realistic, compelling, but also a little too numbing. It’s quite artistic and empathetic and yet it can also be quite grueling to endure. I was wincing when Autumn felt the need to batter her own pregnant stomach. It’s more than effective but also sometimes its understatement can be a hindrance. On the complete other end of the tone spectrum is Unpregnant, a funny and entertaining road trip that doesn’t dismiss the certainty of its female characters and their choices. Both movies are worthy of being viewed and will leave an impression and could change some hearts and minds on the subject of abortion if those same people are willing to listen. I just found one film to be more generally entertaining.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always: B
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