‘Unplanned’ (2019) Review: The Film’s Shortcomings Won’t Make Its Choir Any Less Vocal
I’ll concede that Unplanned has had one of the most interesting and prolific production histories of any film I’ll likely see this year. I can only fathom the risk involved for relatively young actors committing to a flagrantly pro-life movie, undoubtedly putting the future of their acting careers — at least on a recognizably mainstream level — in jeopardy. But beyond that, the film was obviously ostracized from most media outlets, condemned with a nebulous R-rating, and had it not been picked up by the famously right-leaning, Christian film distributor Pure Flix, would’ve likely never seen a theatrical release, at least one this large. I’ll commend it and its filmmakers for their resilience. I cannot, however, get behind a film this dismal.
Let it be known that I believe a good film with pro-life politics and sustainable arguments can be made. It’s all about writing and focus. The problem with Unplanned is the problem of many pro-life arguments: they’re shortsighted, absolutist, and masquerade as easy, “hollier than thou” solutions to complicated dilemmas. By painting Planned Parenthood as an evil organization led by caricatured villains and shortchanging the litany of problems for expecting mothers, the film has bigger problems than its bad dialog. But its target audience won’t mind. Driving home from this film, I actually saw a “40 Days for Life” gathering in front of a church near my hometown. This film’s vast shortcomings won’t make its choir any less vocal.
The film is based on a memoir by Abby Johnson, a former Clinic Director at a Texas-based Planned Parenthood who became an anti-abortion activist. Courted by Planned Parenthood as a college kid (to employ the kind of spooky aura this film loves to craft), she began as a volunteer, ushering a host of young women from their cars, past vicious protesters, before eventually overseeing the facility. She herself had two abortions, impregnated both times by her ex-husband, a man ten years her senior. As one of the most important people in any Planned Parenthood building, Abby stands by her pro-choice beliefs under the guise of protecting the reproductive rights of women and believing she understands the complicated, emotionally taxing pain of pregnancy and planning to raise a family.
The film follows Abby, played well by Ashley Bratcher, as she tells the two halves of her life: one where she spent eight years with Planned Parenthood and the other after she finally “saw the light,” so to speak. The film opens with Abby being called into a room where an abortion is being performed, and she sees the caustic doctor, who utters his dialog in a menacing tone while poking around in a woman’s vagina (at one point even saying, “Beam me up, Scotty,” as if this is a Saturday Night Live skit), suck the fetus out of the womb. She immediately runs into the bathroom, overcome with emotion, guilt, and sorrow. She has apparently been involved with or aided in over 22,000 abortions at this point.
We see Abby come to grips with her career, much to the relief of her husband (Brooks Ryan) and her parents, in the form of finally empathizing with Shawn (Jared Lotz) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts), two protesters from “40 Days for Life” who frequent the gates of Planned Parenthood in hopes of talking young girls out of the biggest mistake of their lives. Abby works to disassociate herself from the organization and from Cheryl (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Robia Scott), the company’s higher-up who constantly works against their alleged model of making abortions “rare” by demanding they increase numbers. The film dramatizes her emancipation in a way only a Pure Flix-branded film could.
Pure Flix, the company who distributed such favorites as The Case for Christ and the God’s Not Dead trilogy, has a known reputation of releasing films your old Sunday School would endorse. They’ve existed long enough for their pictures to have a visual look and thematic consistency as obvious as Marvel. Like their past offerings, Unplanned (their first R-rated feature) is terribly anemic and hokey in its drama. Grand, difficult problems are sentimentalized in a way that leaves no chance for a contrarian argument, and the film’s absolutist stance on abortion is the very thing that makes this debate so difficult to have. The directing/screenwriting team of Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon don’t seem like they could be bothered to hear why a woman would even consider having an abortion, as if they think it’s a desirable procedure, or even one that’s just as easy as driving over to Planned Parenthood and requesting one that day. The black-and-whiteness of their viewpoint leaves no room for argument that poverty, lack of affordable childcare, health insurance, and even family stability play a role in the trying decision to have or not to have a baby in the first place.
I realize Unplanned is a glossy piece of pro-life propaganda. Faithful readers know I don’t employ that word lightly, and in fact, avoid it when I can. But this kind of thin, uncompromised pandering is why this country finds itself engaging in the abortion debate time and time again. While Konzelman and Solomon do a better job than past directors under the Pure Flix umbrella, who were sometimes too giddy to portray atheists as mentally sick individuals worthy of death (revisit that ending of God’s Not Dead, why don’t you?), they falter when it comes to telling this story in a manner that isn’t burdened by manipulative filmmaking practices, such as overplaying emotion and simplifying the circumstances of women choosing this procedure.
The dialog is as gross as a Christmastime Hallmark commercial. From the early scenes that show the flowery domesticity of Abby’s life, with her daughter proclaiming something along the lines of, “eat your toast, mommy, it’s nutritious,” to the predictably cornball conversations that develop between Abby, Shawn, and Marilisa overtime, long stretches of Unplanned are dopey and cringe-inducing in their pathos. I also read that several music labels denied this film the rights to use their music; some songs that couldn’t make the final cut were Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” One Direction’s “Story of My Life,” and The Fray’s “How to Save a Life.” If that latter tune had been included in the film, The Fray and Epic Records should’ve sued for libel and emotional distress for tampering, on top of blatantly incorrect use of their pop ballad.
Unplanned is an easy movie to get behind if you already subscribe to pro-life ideals. It’s equipped with easy heroes in the form of the wide-eyed, pretty Abby, easy villains, in the form of the stern, ice-cold Cheryl, and simplified solutions, such as “just have the baby, the rest will work out!” I would’ve liked to poll audience members at the end of my screening, who erupted in applause when the film concluded (but not before the usual title-cards urging us or someone we know to text a helpline if they are considering abortion) if they felt as passionately about accessible childcare, universal healthcare, access to education, and any of the multitude of concerns that parents have when expecting a child as they do being against abortion. Now that would’ve been a worthy conclusion, and maybe perhaps elevated what is a tremendously terrible movie.