Outstanding Television Movie lives in the shadow of Outstanding Limited Series. Some of the most exciting races—and the worthiest winners—have come from the Limited Series categories for how they confront race, sexism, consent, and homophobia in America. A lot of films in contention for the Television Movie Emmy in recent years have achieved something similar, and those nominees include Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart, Dee Rees’ Bessie, Elliot Lester’s Nightingale, and Jennifer Fox’s The Tale. Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant is a worthy contender for this year’s Television Movie prize, and it manages to be a hilarious comedy and social commentary at the same time. It’s about empowerment and growing up as much as it confronts the abortion divide in America.
I don’t think even Goldenberg thought how relevant her film would be when she was filming it. Released on HBO Max in September of 2020, Unpregnant had an optimistic feel to it. Haley Lu Richardson’s Veronica takes matters into her own hands when she finds herself pregnant and uncertain about her future. She becomes rattled when she discovers that abortions in Missouri are not allowed without parental consent and she solicits the help of her former childhood friend, Bailey (played by Barbie Ferreira), to accompany her to New Mexico.
If Veronica was granted consent by her parents to get an abortion in Missouri, she wouldn’t be able to get one if she already reached the eighth week of her pregnancy. That law was passed in the summer of 2019 and it has no special exceptions for rape or incest. Fetal heartbeat bills have been introduced all across the country, but have stalled out before becoming a law. Abortion is currently outlawed in Alabama, and a six-week heartbeat bill was signed into law in Texas by Governor Greg Abbott in May of this year. It will go into effect this September. Please remember that most women do not know they are pregnant by the sixth week of their pregnancy. How many Veronicas are going to be venturing to other states once that law goes into effect in the fall?
I bring up the heartbeat laws in several states because Unpregnant does such an admirable job of mixing its message with a playful tone. Goldenberg’s direction is nimble and light. She doesn’t assume that Veronica’s plight is every young woman’s situation. It’s just hers. It may be similar to some women’s, but this is an individual journey, and Goldenberg wants you to see how Veronica’s choices are hers and hers alone. When she finally arrives at the clinic, she is asked directly whether it is her own decision to have the procedure, and the camera stays on Richardson’s face.
Make no mistake, Unpregnant is centered on a hot-button issue, but Goldenberg positions her film as a romp. Comedies don’t often win in this category but they are sometimes nominated. Last year’s winner, Bad Education, was a dark comedy about greed and a man struggling with his identity. In the last 10 years, Hello Ladies: The Movie, A Very Murray Christmas, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Versus The Reverend have all landed nominations, but they all lost to more serious fare. Unpregnant would be such a unique nomination for how Goldenberg balances her characters’ situations with humor.
There are many worthy candidates on the ballot this year for Television Movie, but Unpregnant is both a winning comedy about two young women repairing their friendship as it is about a woman making one of the toughest decisions of her life. It’s about determination, finding inner strength, and make individual choices for yourself.