Film & Television

Three Talented Directors Look at
Young Women’s Choices

The concept of freedom of speech dates back to ancient Greece and the earliest models for democracy. In the United States, both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution seem to guarantee this principle, although the U.S. has enforced exceptions, including obscene material (like child pornography), plagiarism, defamation, threats, and speech inciting illegal actions or crimes.

Last week, Paxton Smith, valedictorian of a Texas high school, nervously exercised her freedom of speech when she strayed from her pre-approved graduation address. School officials, some parents, and the conservative media were less forgiving than the Constitution; the right-leaning Washington Times described it as “the stuff of fallen societies,” demonstrating “how far America has turned from God, from godly principles, from Judeo-Christian virtues, from biblical beliefs.” Meanwhile, Paxton earned praise from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Beto O’Rourke, and Sarah Silverman.

Explaining that she had planned to talk about media, Paxton instead spoke out against “the heartbeat bill” recently passed and going into effect this September, an issue “currently affecting me and millions of other women in this state.”  The bill bans abortions after six weeks.

“I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does. And we have spent our entire lives working toward our future, and without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter. I hope that you can feel how gut-wrenching that is. I hope that you can feel how dehumanizing it is to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you.”

You can watch her entire speech here.

The earliest records of contraception and abortion also date back to ancient Greece and Rome (although their practice is surely even older). The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects a woman’s liberty to choose to terminate a pregnancy without government restriction in 1973’s Roe v. Wade. But, in the years since, many states have made it more and more difficult to exercise that liberty. Particularly if the woman in question is underage.

Directors Eliza Hittman, Rachel Lee Goldenberg, and Natalie Morales have recently addressed this issue in their films, respectively: the powerful drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always; and teen comedies Unpregnant and Plan B. Each is built on a roadtrip — both literal (five states today have only one abortion clinic and most states have fewer than ten) and emotional. Each is disturbingly timely. And each is excellent.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is slow-moving and tough to watch, but ultimately rewarding. Protagonist Autumn (intense newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is seventeen when she learns that she’s pregnant. Living in Pennsylvania, she can’t access an abortion without her parents’ permission. She and her sympathetic cousin Skylar (endearing Talia Ryder) scrounge enough money to go to New York City. A planned one-day roundtrip turns into two overnights when Autumn learns that the “pregnancy clinic” in her hometown (really a doctor-free pro-life counseling center) incorrectly gauged her term and she’s already in her second trimester. The girls have no money, and few street smarts, although they both understand firsthand their vulnerability as young women. Hittman, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, gives virtually every man in the film a hidden and potentially dangerous agenda — from Autumn’s leering stepfather to a pervert on the subway, from the girls’ grocery store manager to a fellow traveler who may or may not want something from Skylar in exchange for helping the girls with bus fare. 

The film’s title comes from a set of questions that a counselor at the New York abortion clinic asks. Wanting to ensure that Autumn is there of her own free will and hasn’t been the victim of violence, she asks tough questions about her sexual relationships. Although the multiple-choice answers don’t require Autumn to elaborate, her face gradually tells a darker story of abuse, coercion, and possibly incest. The dialogue is sparse, but Flanigan’s acting is superb. I can’t remember being so blown away by a young unknown since first seeing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone a decade ago.

Unpregnant is rightly marketed as a comedy, but there are tough lessons wrapped up in its humor. Adapted from a YA novel by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, it’s the story of an odd couple and their complicated, at times almost surreal, journey from Missouri to New Mexico and the nearest abortion clinic for a mother-to-be who’s also a minor. Veronica (The Chaperone’s (Haley Lu Richardson) is a high school senior who has it all: a clique of popular (read: “mean girl”) friends; a devoted, if ultimately devious, boyfriend; acceptance to Brown; and . . . a positive pregnancy test. Bailey (Euphoria’s Barbie Ferreira) has less to recommend her; she’s a bit chubby, a bit punky, and quite a bit of an outcast. However, Bailey is the only one that Veronica can count on.

The girls set off on their trip, which Veronica has micromanaged in advance, but which goes almost immediately wrong. Their journey includes a brush with the law, a funhouse romance with a stock car driver, a pawn shop clerk with a shotgun, a conspiracy theorist with a limousine, a neglectful father, and multiple multi-hued slushies. (Interestingly, while both of the movie’s heroines are white, all of the film’s saviors turn out to be Black.) By the end of the movie, Veronica has realized how valuable true friendship is. And it only took her 990 miles and one cafeteria encounter to get there.

Finally, Plan B feels almost like a mashup of Unpregnant and 2019’s Booksmart. But that shouldn’t detract from director Natalie Morales’s fine work or the sweet and genuinely funny performances of her talented young cast. Sunny (Kuhoo Verma from The Big Sick) and Lupe (Victoria Moroles, familiar from MTV and Disney titles) are best friends and exotic ethnics in their fairly homogenous South Dakota high school. Sunny is certain that the “Indian Mafia” will report any misbehavior to her strict mother. Lupe, who wears fishnet sleeves and two-toned hair, is under surveillance and pressure from her widowed pastor father. Nevertheless, when Sunny’s mother goes out of town for a conference, the girls do what any self-respecting high school students would in a teen movie: they throw a wild party — that turns out to be a bit too wild.

Good girl Sunny, drunk on thoroughly disgusting punch and depressed after seeing her crush leave the party with a snooty blonde, has awkward (but consensual) sex with a classmate. The next morning, she realizes that the encounter was not just ill advised but less protected than she thought. When she and Lupe go to buy the morning-after pill, they’re turned down by a judgmental pharmacist (the state, like thirteen others, has a “conscience clause”) and head to Grand Rapids and Planned Parenthood. Along the way, they have strange encounters (including one that is extremely graphic; be prepared); their friendship is tested; secrets are revealed; and — in a sweet touch, unusual for the genre — relationships with parents are strained but emerge strong. Stronger even than the Indian Mafia.

Although all the action of the three films begins with unwanted pregnancies, each movie stands on its own considerable merits. Hittman, Goldenberg, and Morales are clearly arguing for a system in which young women can have more agency over their own bodies and reproductive health. (And one has to assume that the three directors applauded Smith’s valedictory address.) But they’ve created memorable characters and situations (both somber and silly) that reinforce that young women, regardless of where they live or what they have or haven’t done, are much more than their method of birth control.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent on Amazon Prime. Unpregnant is available on HBO Max. Plan B is available on Hulu.


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