There’s a scene midway through Unpregnant that sums up the new HBO Max teen road trip movie’s peculiar, pitch-perfect blend of political commentary and wildly riotous comedy. Barbie Ferreira and Haley Lu Richardson, the film’s leads, are racing across a dusty desert, being chased by a Bible-thumping pro-lifer in a souped-up RV camper. It’s Travis from Clueless, a grown-up Breckin Meyer trying to shame Richardson’s Veronica out of her decision to get an abortion with pancakes and some light kidnapping. If that doesn’t work, he’ll just drive them off a cliff.
It seems surreal, extreme, improbable, as does most of the action in this movie which follows Richardson’s Veronica and Ferreira’s Bailey — two former best friends on a cross-country trek to deal with their own respective personal issues – as they outrun the cops, make pit-stops at fairground drag races, and recruit the services of Giancarlo Esposito’s paranoid libertarian limo driver on their journey to freedom (from an unplanned fetus). But despite the chaotic, dangerous, darkly comedic odyssey for these two — a Thelma & Louise / Mad Max: Fury Road crossover adventure that taps into the social discourse in a way few teen movies have done before — there’s a lot of truth rooted in their absurd mishaps.
It’s that truth that persuaded Ferreira, last seen on HBO’s breakout teen drama Euphoria, to chose it as her feature film debut, despite not having a driver’s license and generally disliking real-life road trips. We chatted with Ferreira about making smart content for Gen Z, the timely message behind the film, and yes, that Euphoria-inspired One Direction fanfiction debacle.
This is a really unique teen road trip comedy. Was there something in particular that you hadn’t seen before in a movie like this?
I was drawn to how it tied in something that we’re all familiar with — a teen movie or a road trip movie — with this uncharted territory of reproductive rights and healthcare access. It was beautifully blended and balanced. It shows the perspective of these two girls who go on a crazy adventure with lots of obstacles, just for a simple procedure that should be accessible for everybody. It makes it so light and also, at times, heavy and at times really funny — the whole spectrum of emotion that is to be a teenager on an adventure of any sort.
You play a rebellious teenager on Euphoria. What makes Bailey different?
I love to use humor to deflect a lot of emotions and I think I brought that to Bailey. [She’s] someone who’s quick-witted and inappropriately joking all the time. [She] has her own opinions that are very, very strong, and [there’s] also the vulnerability of a teenager who is lost and doesn’t know how to process anything.
Were you aware of how stigmatized abortion and women’s reproductive health are before taking this thing on?
I’ve been privileged enough to live in New York and LA, which I think has more facilities and more medical care for reproductive things, for birth control, for testing, for all these things. I didn’t take it for granted, but I really thought that it wasn’t as hard as it was. You have to go across state lines in a lot of states. A lot of people don’t have that option, they don’t have enough money to do that, they don’t have enough time, they can’t tell their parents. Really, we should all have access to safe and legal abortions, and we should all have access to reproductive care at any time.
I think it’s really important to say because these things are incredibly difficult already to access and it’s only getting worse, there are so many laws coming out that are like the “six-week rule.” It’s really putting Planned Parenthood and a lot of these facilities out of practice and they’re painting these facilities as these evil organizations. I’m like, “That’s where most people can afford to get tested, to get ultrasounds, to get so many things.” We’re so ashamed about sex that we can’t even talk about healthcare for it. You know what I mean? It’s just like, “Don’t ask and don’t talk about it.” All these things.
There are some wild moments in the girls’ abortion journey. There’s a kind of Get Out scene with Breckin Meyer, the dude who played Travis in Clueless. It’s all so surreal, but there’s some truth rooted in it, no? These crazies really do exist.
Yeah, I think that whole situation with the family was a horror movie. Those crisis centers absolutely exist. It’s when people pretend to be abortion clinics, but they’re just basically harassing people to not get abortions and telling them straight-up lies. It’s a big problem because they’re spreading misinformation and they’re shaming people and there’s already a lot of guilt with sex and pregnancy and abortion. We don’t need any more of that. So that was unfortunately a little bit realistic. I don’t know about the car chase though.
I’m sure it’s happened, but even so, I appreciate the humor. I also think it’s interesting that this isn’t a movie about a girl crying because she has to get an abortion.
Right? It doesn’t always have to be highly traumatizing. I think it’s pretty common for people to feel relief or to feel like they have a weight off their shoulders. Those stories are also as valid as these really emotional stories. I think it paints abortion in a weird way if the only thing you see is women crying on the floor for three hours about these decisions and being on the fence and not knowing what they want. A lot of people find out they’re pregnant and they’re like, “I don’t want this right now. I’m going to make this decision. I’m unwavering in that decision and that’s my choice. And I’m not feeling all these emotions towards it, if anything, it’s more anxiety.”
Speaking of car chases, were you behind the wheel for any of those Fast and Furious moments?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t have a driver’s license. I don’t drive. I’m from New York. I had a permit. I tried desperately to get my license before. I got to drive a little bit. I pulled into a lot of parking lots, but the crazy driving is by no means me.
There’s also a pivotal scene on a fairground ride. I won’t spoil it, but how the hell did you guys film that?
That was one of the toughest days. God, we went on it eight times. It’s one thing if it’s just us screaming but when you’re saying things… it was extremely hard. It was a lot of Dramamine. Lots of breaks.
With Booksmart, Euphoria, and now Unpregnant, it feels like maybe teen movies and TV shows are finally catching on to how smart their audience is. Do you think the genre’s changing?
I think a lot of times people dumb things down or water things down for teens and young adults. In this day and age, if you’re still doing that, it’s really tired and old. Kids are well-informed, they know a lot. I think this movie shows two characters that are very strong-willed and opinionated, and it does not revolve around their love life, it does not revolve around talking about boys or whatever these stereotypes are. And I think they’re incredibly lovable and also deeply flawed. And I think that’s what people are.
I’ve heard of it. I don’t know any information on it though, honestly.
We can’t talk about teen fandom without mentioning that One Direction fanfiction scandal from season one. Do you still get messages from fans about that?
[Laughs] Yeah, I do. The fans are really protective of the band. I personally saw nothing wrong with it. Literally millions of people write fan fiction about these two people and all we did was animate it, similar to South Park or to an SNL skit. It’s a parody of real things, it’s not like we made it up. It’s something that I don’t see a big problem with, but I do respect people’s opinions. These kids are young, and they really love One Direction. And I respect that because I was young and loved One Direction at one point as well.
HBO Max’s ‘Unpregnant’ streams on September 10.