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The Director Behind HBO Max’s “Unpregnant” Wants To Destigmatize Abortion At A Time When Reproductive Rights Are “Under Attack”

“In my dream scenario, this movie doesn’t make sense to an audience in a couple years because it sounds absurd that someone would have to drive 1,000 miles to get an abortion in a country where it’s supposedly legal,” Rachel Lee Goldenberg told BuzzFeed News. (Spoilers ahead!)

Posted on September 10, 2020, at 4:04 p.m. ET

Veronica and Bailey hold slushies in a gas station store
Ursula Coyote / HBO Max

Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) in Unpregnant.

When 17-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) finds out she’s pregnant in the first few minutes of HBO Max’s Unpregnant, viewers don’t see any kind of debate or deliberation about how she’s going to handle her pregnancy. From the moment she’s standing in a high school bathroom stall holding a positive pregnancy test, her character immediately knows she’s getting an abortion.

While Veronica is unwavering in her decision to get an abortion, her home state of Missouri requires women under the age of 18 to get their parents’ permission. But that isn’t an option for Veronica, who initially isn’t comfortable telling her mom. Enter Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), Veronica’s former best friend who happens to be in the school bathroom when she finds out she is pregnant. Veronica doesn’t have anyone else to turn to, and Bailey conveniently has a car for them to use on their 1,000-mile, weekend-long road trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Veronica can get her abortion.

Director and screenwriter Rachel Lee Goldenberg told BuzzFeed News she thinks there’s “a real urgency” to make films about abortion and reproductive rights in this cultural moment because they’re “under attack.”

“In my dream scenario, this movie doesn’t make sense to an audience in a couple years because it sounds absurd that someone would have to drive 1,000 miles to get an abortion in a country where it’s supposedly legal. But that’s obviously not the reality right now,” Goldenberg said. “I think that abortion should be normalized and it should be destigmatized, so showing Veronica’s journey and turmoil not coming from her decision, but coming from the difficulty of access makes a lot of sense.”

Ursula Coyote / HBO Max

Rachel Lee Goldenberg on the set of Unpregnant with Haley Lu Richardson.

Goldenberg said she read a manuscript of Unpregnant before it was first published as a YA novel, written by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, in September 2019.

One of the more significant changes the film adaptation made from the book was the role of Veronica’s boyfriend, Kevin (Alex MacNicoll). In the novel, Kevin pokes holes in the condoms he and Veronica use when they have sex to try to get her pregnant and trap her from going away to college and leaving him. In the movie, Kevin doesn’t tell Veronica that a condom breaks.

Goldenberg said “purposely poking holes in a condom is literally sexual assault,” and she wanted to find “a more grounded and complex version of Kevin” for the film so that it’s understandable why Veronica is dating him in the first place.

“She can be with someone who is not the right person for her,” she said. “Kevin’s incredibly insecure and is the wrong person for her, but he’s not evil.”

Harper Teen

Goldenberg said she also drew from her own experiences when working on the film. Having had an abortion herself in her twenties, Goldenberg said she related to the way Veronica’s character dealt with her situation in a matter-of-fact manner. Something she didn’t have in common with Veronica, however, was the fact that Goldenberg had access to abortion.

“I think people can have a range of different emotions and journeys to abortion, and in this movie, it was an easy decision to portray it in a way that resonated with me,” Goldenberg said. “For Veronica, the struggle comes with the journey.”

Veronica and Bailey encounter their fair share of obstacles along the way to Albuquerque. There’s the issue of Bailey’s car actually belonging to her mom’s boyfriend, and since she took it without permission, the cops come looking for them. This prompts the high schoolers to hitch a ride with a group of guys they find at a diner, which eventually brings them to a carnival where a seemingly innocent couple offers them a ride to Albuquerque. What Veronica and Bailey don’t realize is that the couple are anti-abortion activists who try to hold the girls hostage in their house in the middle of nowhere to prevent Veronica from getting her abortion, forcing them to escape.

All of their shenanigans are met with humor and bond the characters back together as friends. While sometimes funny, the issues they encounter are also hardships getting in between Veronica and her abortion.

“Certainly the obstacles themselves are designed to be entertaining and funny and wild, but of course there’s a larger point about how hard it is for her to get the abortion,” Goldenberg said. “The point is: Look at how hard it is for her to actually accomplish something that she knows she wants to do and legally should be allowed to do.”

Goldenberg said she toured a Planned Parenthood clinic in Los Angeles to research each step of the procedure so that she could accurately depict the onscreen abortion from Veronica’s perspective.

The teens sit in a diner
Ursula Coyote / HBO Max

Bailey and Veronica

The director said when she had an abortion she took a pill, so when she learned about all of the details involved in the surgical procedure, she was “fascinated” and had an “aha moment” in terms of how she wanted to portray the abortion scene.

Goldenberg said “it would feel like a cop-out” not to show the full scope of the experience, which is what led Unpregnant to include a sequence of scenes onscreen while the abortion provider is explaining each step in the background.

“When I was at Planned Parenthood, I realized we need to show all of this. There’s nothing that we shouldn’t show or that we should cut out. What we’re saying in the movie is that this is a fine thing to do, here’s the information, and this is something that just should be destigmatized and should be normalized,” she said. “And also from a character perspective, this is what we’ve been doing the whole time, trying to get to this place, so I don’t want to leave my hero Veronica in that moment. I want to be with her and see her emotions and see her feelings.”

Goldenberg said it’s also relatable for Bailey’s character to be nervous and anxious while she waits for Veronica because “the person who’s waiting has no idea what’s going on — it’s a mystery.”

Once the two are reunited, Bailey asks how Veronica’s feeling, to which she plainly replies, “Relieved and hungry.” There isn’t a sad or traumatic overtone following Veronica’s abortion; the girls move on and go get nachos.

The teens yell in joy from a sunroof of a car
HBO Max

Bailey and Veronica

“The most specific and personal experience I can draw from is my own, and for me, after the abortion, I was just relieved to not be pregnant anymore,” Goldenberg said. “And life went on.”

Even though Veronica didn’t want to tell her mom about her pregnancy or abortion, she eventually does call her from Albuquerque because the girls need help getting on a plane home.

Goldenberg said Veronica’s mom might not agree with her decision, but she wanted to include a scene between the two characters where the mom still shows her daughter that she loves and supports her.

“Veronica has gone through this journey from the beginning of the movie where she knows what she wants to do but she feels ashamed and she feels like she can’t talk about it and knows that her mother wouldn’t approve, so she doesn’t want to bring this to her,” Goldenberg said. “Then by the end of the movie, she’s matured and she’s grown into herself and she’s more confident. We see Veronica’s mom loves her and she wants her to know that she’s there for her even when she disagrees with her.”

When the weekend is over, Veronica and Bailey return to school on Monday as friends, something that seemed unlikely to both characters at the beginning of the film. Goldenberg said the focus of Unpregnant is about Veronica’s physical journey to her abortion, but ultimately the movie is also about female friendship.

“The heart of the movie is about the two of them and their relationship,” she said. “Of course I’m a passionate advocate of reproductive rights, but this is a movie about two ex–best friends becoming best friends again, so while we had lots of discussions about abortion and about the procedure and how it would be portrayed in the movie, most of the effort was spent on these characters, their relationship, and bringing truth to that.”

Correction: Rachel Lee Goldenberg's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.

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