With Plan B, the Teen Abortion Road Trip Movies Keep Coming
In the U.S., young women who want to terminate their pregnancies often must first go through some measure of logistical and emotional difficulty. You wouldn’t know that from Juno: In Jason Reitman’s Oscar-nominated 2007 film, the title character waltzes into her local Planned Parenthood after passing one teenage protester, a nerdy anti-abortion fanatic. Her words, though, have an effect on Juno (Elliot Page); it turns out that she can’t stand to be inside the clinic and bolts, deciding to have her child and give it up for adoption. The rest of the movie doesn’t exactly make light of teen pregnancy’s circumstances, nor of the difficulty of giving up a baby you have carried to term. But mostly Juno is focused on the interpersonal dynamics between the girl and the future parents of the baby she gives birth to.
We’re in a different time now, where more films are getting made about teenagers and adult women who decide not to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. These films, generally speaking, reckon with the structural as well as the personal—how certain states in the U.S. make it almost impossible to receive reproductive health care, particularly for teenagers whose rights are generally ceded to their parents. The films usually involve road trips, obstacle-ridden sojourns over state lines and/or to the closest Planned Parenthood—one of the only places to reliably and affordably receive reproductive health care without hassle.
The latest of them, Plan B—a teen comedy directed by Natalie Morales and available on Hulu May 28—takes place in South Dakota. In this state and several others, a “conscience clause” gives a pharmacist the right to refuse abortifacient drugs (including the morning-after pill and birth control) to minors on the basis of that provider’s personal beliefs. When Sunny (Kuhoo Verma), a goody two-shoes with great grades, hosts her first house party and has sex for the first time, the guy puts the condom on inside out. She finds it in the toilet the next day. She and her more experienced rebel best friend, Lupe (Victoria Moroles), end up on a wild goose chase to get the pill from a more politically aligned provider, a several-hours-drive away. The film’s cinematography is a sepia haze; despite its emphasis on South Dakota geography (at one point, the girls pull out a physical map), there’s nothing particularly specific about it. We see various home interiors, the pharmacy, the highway, a bowling alley in mostly medium shots—we could be anywhere. There’s a missed opportunity here to tell us where and who these young women really are, beyond their racial identity or how they adhere to high school tropes.
Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant (2020), another teen comedy, follows a different pair as they embark on their own slapdash road trip from Missouri to New Mexico to secure the blonde, perky, and popular Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) a hasty abortion (as Juno once put it) without parental consent. Veronica’s estranged friend, Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), has the car and the gumption, so off they go. The movie’s tagline is “She’s a type A without a Plan B,” making plain how thematically and structurally similar Unpregnant is to Plan B.
In both films, charismatic lead actors carry otherwise lackluster scripts, which are more interested in mimicking or updating teen-movie tropes than devising an original aesthetic. Both movies make clear enough, though, the absurd cruelty of the U.S.’s various stringent policies on reproductive healthcare, and the psychic and material difficulties imposed by living under the absolute authority of religious conservative parents, no matter how much those parents may love you. They also insist upon the importance of friendship and solidarity in the face of injustice.
Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), the best film of this bunch—and the first to be released—deals again with very similar themes. It’s a drama, yet genre is not what makes the film rise above. Hittman is interested in how reproductive rights are entangled with young women’s rights and freedom more generally, and in how the relationships young women form with one another depend on some unspoken knowledge of how that freedom is withheld or denied. Bodily autonomy, including freedom from abuse and judgment, becomes central in the film, which follows a young girl, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) as they travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City by bus so Autumn can get an abortion at a Planned Parenthood where Autumn won’t need parental consent to undergo the procedure.
Hittman’s camera stays close to the two girls, transfixed in their orbit; they build a kind of protective energy around themselves, however provisional. There’s a kind of magic about their experience, even though no miracles happen. Never Rarely is the only film of these three that deals head-on with money, and the economics of owning your own body (though Plan B briefly flirts with the idea of selling one’s body in order to secure resources). Hittman makes no attempts to dally in popularized visions of teen existence, forgoing imagined Gen Z cultural touchpoints for a more naturalistic experience of how two young girls from rural America would express (or not express) themselves.
It’s admittedly harder to do this sort of thing in a straight comedy, to write jokes that don’t depend on current trends or whatever older people think is weird about younger people. Yet all these abortion road trip films work best where they consider how uniquely belabored teenagers are by the assault on reproductive rights, how they’re dependent on the whim or morality of adults to determine what little of their own lives they have to themselves. Whatever genres filmmakers choose, there’s plenty of potential here—especially given the incredible fight ahead.
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Published at Fri, 28 May 2021 18:06:38 +0000
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