Road-trip comedies are well-traveled territory in Hollywood, and at first glance, UNpregnant may seem as if it’s following a familiar map. Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira star in the upcoming HBO Max film as two Missouri teenagers driving to New Mexico, and as the pair journey together across the Southwest, they pass plenty of the genre’s recognizable mile markers, including unexpected detours, Slurpee-fueled radio singalongs, and chaotic chase scenes.
But what sets UNpregnant apart is its unusual destination: an abortion clinic.
A teenage abortion road trip movie doesn’t immediately seem like it would be packed with punchlines (see one of this year’s breakout movies, the relatively dark Never Rarely Sometimes Always), but UNpregnant is the rare adolescent comedy that’s both spiky and sweet. Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg (who helmed the recent Valley Girl remake) and based on Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan’s YA novel, the film nimbly weaves between heavy drama and manic shenanigans. (It’s certainly the only film this year that includes a candid breakdown of an abortion procedure and a slapstick scene involving a taser.) Before UNpregnant premieres later this fall, EW spoke with Richardson, Ferreira, and Goldenberg about how to make an abortion comedy — and how they hope audiences will both laugh and learn something.
“I hope it starts conversation,” Richardson, 25, explains. “That’s what you want: You want to invite people that support the decisions that Veronica made in the movie, but you want to also invite people that disagree or have a different belief or viewpoint. I want families to watch this movie together, young girls to watch this movie, young couples to watch this movie and feel invited to talk about sex education and to talk about relationships.”
“We’ve seen films about abortion that are really hard, and they just tug on your heartstrings, and they’re very traumatic,” Ferreira, 23, adds. “I love those films, but I also wanted to see something where it normalizes it. It normalizes the choice and the decisions that people have over their bodies.”
Richardson (Five Feet Apart) plays Veronica, an ambitious and seemingly put-together high schooler with Ivy League dreams. When faced with an unexpected pregnancy, she realizes she can’t rely on her boyfriend, her gossipy friends, or her conservative family for help. So, she reluctantly turns to the only person she thinks won’t judge her (and who, helpfully, has a car): her ex-best friend Bailey (Euphoria’s Ferreira).
If Veronica is an Instagram-addicted overachiever, Bailey is her exact opposite: a sarcastic, queer loner with little tolerance for Veronica’s new friends. Together, they travel more than 900 miles to Albuquerque, which is the closest place Veronica can obtain a legal abortion without parental consent.
Richardson and Ferreira both agree that their biggest challenge was finding the harmony between the heavy emotional stakes and the more light-hearted jokes. “It was really difficult for me, finding that balance and doing justice to this girl and what she’s going through while staying true to the tone of the movie,” Richardson admits.
Luckily, the two hit it off in real life, and they relied on each other to help nail the right combination of humor and heart. “They’re as different from each other as their characters are, but they love each other just as much,” Goldenberg says. “Their real-life bond that emerged makes such a difference with their chemistry on screen.”
Also new to Ferreira was the sheer scale of the film: She rose to stardom as a model and as an actor on HBO’s Euphoria, but UNpregnant is her first film credit.
“I really got to see what it’s like to shoot in locations, like in the desert, or getting to roll around in the dirt doing stunts and all these things that were pretty new to me,” she says. “This movie, it’s an adventure comedy, so it was definitely an adventure every day.”
“It was just a road trip-y, friendship movie, but it felt like we were in the trenches with Leonardo DiCaprio filming The Revenant,” Richardson adds with a laugh.
In between all the jokes and road trip mischief, there’s a particular timeliness to Veronica and Bailey’s story: Last summer, at the same time the film was announced, Missouri health officials attempted to close the state’s only operating clinic, which would’ve made it the first state without a single abortion clinic since Roe v. Wade. (Since then, it’s been ruled that the clinic could remain open.)
Ultimately, Goldenberg hopes UNpregnant can help raise awareness about the importance of safe, legal abortion access — no cross-country road trips required.
“I want there to be less shame and stigma around the topic of abortion,” she explains. “I want to educate people on the problematic existing laws and also demystify the abortion procedure. I’m not sure if one movie can do everything I want it to do, but it’s not going to stop us from trying.”
SOURCE ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY