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Review: ‘Unpregnant’ explores the subject of teenage abortion with humor and honesty

Haley Lu Richardson as Veronica (left) and Barbie Ferreira as Bailey in ‘Unpregnant’. Photo: Ursula Coyote/HBO Max

“Unpregnant” tells the story of a Missouri high school student’s struggle to get to New Mexico for an abortion before her Catholic parents find out.

This is delicious.

Billed as a teen road trip comedy, this HBO Max film, which hits the streaming service Thursday, September 10, finds humor in the fight for reproductive rights. It’s sure to upset people on both sides of the abortion debate, and that’s what makes this intelligent entertainment radical, beneath its slick and fun surface.

Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg isn’t here to diminish more naturalistic and genuinely heartbreaking films on the subject, like the excellent “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which was released in April. The sharp sitcom-like timing of “Unpregnant” enhances rather than detracts from its study of a young woman taking control of her body. And while its characters are occasionally highlighted with humor, the film tackles a variety of issues commonly encountered in teen comedies — friendship, self-image, family relationships — with tough love and exceptional believability.

Haley Lu Richardson (left) as Veronica and Barbie Ferreira as Bailey in ‘Unpregnant’. Photo: Ursula Coyote/HBO Max

Adapted from Jenni Hendriks’ young adult novel by a battery of screenwriters, “Unpregnant” also benefits from two superb lead roles. Although Haley Lu Richardson (“Five Feet Apart”) and Barbie Ferreira (“HBO’s “Euphoria”) are in their mid-20s, they look and act young enough to make 17-year-olds believable. Better still, their chemistry as former girlfriends who come together out of necessity strikes a nice balance between resentment and affection, both easily accessible and hard-earned varieties.

Richardson’s Veronica is the high-performing valedictorian with the broken condom problem. She hung out with the popular (and curious) girls for years, leaving Ferreira’s blue-haired player Bailey to lunch alone. Trying to keep her condition a secret from everyone but her boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll, stupid and caring until he wasn’t anymore), Veronica learns that the only ride she can get to Albuquerque is in a Trans Am owned by the guy Bailey’s mom is dating.

Alex MacNicoll plays Kevin in “Unpregnant.” Photo: Ursula Coyote/HBO Max

Veronica has every moment and expense of the trip accurately mapped out in a PowerPoint on her laptop, while Bailey thinks more of the vacation, though she also has a poignant reason to visit New Mexico. It’s an understatement to say that neither girl’s expectations are going as planned. But if some turns turn out to be frightening and dangerous, fun and unexpected, positive encounters are just as numerous.

Richardson has been awe-inspiring since her role as, yes, another pregnant teenager in 2014’s “The Young Kieslowski.” She’s continued to clock up more cerebral performances in the likes of “Columbus,” and she deftly modulate the sophistication she’s capable of. for Veronica’s intelligent, yet still naïve personality. The actress delivers several righteous rants from that point of view, with enough childish ignorance to drive home their common sense points in a fun way that doesn’t feel like a lecture.

“Unpregnant” is a road trip comedy about a Missouri high schooler’s struggle to get to New Mexico for an abortion before her Catholic parents find out. Photo: Ursula Coyote/HBO Max

Bailey is certainly more innocent than Ferreira’s “Euphoria” character, Kat Hernandez, but has a sarcastic wit that doesn’t drown out the unloved girl’s vulnerability. She holds her ground against Veronica’s attitude who knows best about her friend. But the hurt is real when a betrayal emerges, turning this tired gender convention into a powerful moment of truth for both girls.

“You know, Veronique? Have a super fun abortion! Bailey spits. It is said ironically, even sarcastically. But it describes “Unpregnant” quite accurately.

M“Not Pregnant”: Drama. With Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira. Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg. (PG-13. 104 mins.) Available to stream on HBO Max starting Thursday, September 10.