Pop artist Betty Who makes her jump to the silver screen in HBO Max’s ‘Unpregnant,’ a heartwarming coming-of-age comedy with an unflinching eye on the experiences of young women in America.
Representation is such a huge part of continuing to change the way we tell these stories.
It’s a story that echoes in a thousand schools in a thousand different towns across the Great Plain States. A teenager spends a nerve-wracking moment between classes in the bathroom, fingers crossed that the little indicator comes back negative. Of course for Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson), that exhale of relief never comes. If it did, the whole conceit of HBO Max’s new film Unpregnant wouldn’t exist. Instead she and her begrudging friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) take a cross country trip from Missouri to New Mexico, a journey of 900 miles to the nearest abortion clinic where she wouldn’t have to divulge her condition to her fundamentalist Christian mother.
If that sounds like a cliché, that’s probably because it’s a sorry reality for many young women in America. Yet, few examples of media exist that trade in these situations so frankly and honestly. Rachel Lee Goldberg’s film joins the ranks of Obvious Child and Grandma (both over five years old now) in telling a story about abortion access with firm focus on a woman’s (or in this case, a young woman’s) experience. Unfortunately, those accounts seem to come rarely if ever on our TV screens.
This was just one aspect of the film that drew Australian pop artist Betty Who to her first on-screen role. The “Somebody Loves You” singer and Atwood Magazine favorite rounded out 2019 by touring her career-defining album Betty, but kept her eye on other performing opportunities. “Musical theatre was where my love of performing and music really blossomed, so I’ve always wanted to get back into those other parts of myself,” she told us. So, when presented with the opportunity to audition for Unpregnant, she leapt at it. “Funnily, I actually didn’t think I had a good audition for [the film],” she admits. “Show you what I know!”
When Betty makes her debut, it’s with all the confidence, swagger, and bravado fans of her electrifying live performances have come to expect. Stock cars kick up dust on a dirt track in a middle of nowhere Americana town. The crowd goes wild as Car 96 edges out the leader and speeds through the finish line. After some celebratory donuts, 96 skids to a halt. Lights flash in slow motion as the driver emerges and removes her helmet, revealing Betty’s trademark shock of blonde hair. This is Kira, all confidence and instantly disarming, especially to the lovestruck Bailey (and me for that matter). Her stay in the film is a relatively brief one, but every minute on screen she’s magnetizing and everything she’s come to stand for over the course of her illustrious career.
Betty Who first came to prominence in a now immortal YouTube same sex proposal video featuring her song “Somebody Loves You.” On its release in 2013, marriage equality wasn’t the law of the land, and such moments of queer normalization were part of the ongoing struggle to get there. Even in 2020, the battle for LGBTQ+ rights is still a work in progress.
“Representation is such a huge part of continuing to change the way we tell these stories,” explains Betty. In addition to its central plot about Veronica’s abortion, Unpregnant also features a queer main character in Bailey. Unlike a lot of films that make a gay character’s sexuality their primary trait, Bailey is funny, spontaneous, and unabashedly nerdy (she even drops a Star Trek: The Next Generation reference that made my inner child bounce around the living room) foremost, and her queer identity is treated as a given. Like any straight character, Bailey’s sexuality isn’t romanticized. When she first locks eyes with Kira, we see it as any teen infatuation.
“I think this film does a really great job of telling a queer love story without any of the attached “stress” or “shame” of being gay that I so often see in commercial queer love stories,” adds Betty. “Bailey hasn’t ‘stayed in the closet’ out of shame of who she is, she’s come out to the people who she trusts and loves and doesn’t really care about what anybody else thinks.”
The brief, blossoming romance between Kira and Bailey plays as matter of fact, more about the connection between two human beings, and never seeping into melodrama because both characters happen to be women.
There are many reasons to dive into Unpregnant aside from the astute and direct political commentaries. It’s a sweet and funny story of friendship in impossible situations with an added dose of screwball sensibility for anyone who enjoys a well-placed joke every couple of minutes. The young leads are perfectly matched too, boasting a ride or die chemistry that only comes from high school hallways where your friends are the only shield between you and the world. Every moment Haley and Barbie are on screen, the film feels more like a documentary on female friendship than a teen road trip comedy. Plus, the soundtrack bursts with bangers from a grab bag of fresh talent.
In Betty’s words herself: “Honestly? It’s a really good movie. And SO IMPORTANT. That’s two reasons [to see it].”
We caught up with Betty Who to talk her role in the film, life in quarantine, and what’s up next for her musically following the album cycle for her stunning self-titled work.
A CONVERSATION WITH BETTY WHO
Atwood Magazine: It’s been over a year since the release of Betty. How have you stayed busy between then and now?
Betty Who: Well I was on tour for a little while there! Since quarantine I’ve obviously had lots of time to think about life and music. At first it was really scary but I feel really excited and inspired now. It’s been both challenging and beautiful forming this new relationship with my career. That and I bake.
What made you take the leap to a feature film role?
Betty Who: I’ve been auditioning a lot over the last two years just to get my feet wet and see how it felt. Funnily, I actually didn’t think I had a good audition for Unpregnant! Shows you what I know! But musical theatre was where my love of performing and music really blossomed so I’ve always wanted to get back into those other parts of myself. I’m really grateful for the opportunity honestly.
How would you describe your character, Kira, for viewers who haven’t queued up Unpregnant on their TV yet?
Betty Who: She’s a totally badass, confident and queer race car driver who catches the eye of Barbie Ferreira’s character, Bailey. She’s very cool and hopefully crush-worthy!!
What about Kira drew you to her as a character?
Betty Who: I love how at ease she felt. Here she is, winning this race, pulling herself out the window of her killer car, taking off her helmet in an incredible slow mo Charlie’s angels moment… And she’s like “yeah whatever, hey who are you?” She’s way cooler than I will ever be that’s for sure.
Though Kira’s part in the film is relatively small, she plays an important part in developing Bailey’s sexuality on screen. What do you hope viewers get out of witnessing the brief romance?
Betty Who: I love the way Bailey seems really comfortable with her sexuality, and at such a young age. Kira is such a great device to inspire these girls to share news parts of themselves. If anything I hope this continues to represent young queer love stories and inspire people who are a little less confident than Bailey to feel comfortable liking whoever they wanna like!
Though the battle for LGBTQ+ rights has made great strides in the past few years, there’s still a long way to go. How do you think positive depictions of queer romance help in this struggle?
Betty Who: Representation is such a huge part of continuing to change the way we tell these stories. I think this film does a really great job of telling a queer love story without any of the attached “stress” or “shame” of being gay that I so often see in commercial queer love stories. Bailey hasn’t “stayed in the closet” out of shame of who she is, she’s come out to the people who she trusts and loves and doesn’t really care about what anybody else thinks. I think it’s important, especially for young queer people, to see comfortable and self-loving queer kids living their best lives.
Let’s talk a little about Unpregnant as a whole. Its matter-of-fact commentary on women’s (and particularly young women’s) reproductive rights is something that you don’tsee an abundance of, in American cinema. Do you think we’ll see more films in the future speaking this honestly about abortion?
Betty Who: I hope we do! This movie is an amazing example of the fresh perspective that can be told now. We should be seeing more movies about what it’s actually like for young women in this country trying to have an abortion.
Do you think the film will help in the constant struggle for abortion rights in America?
Betty Who: One can always hope.
The soundtrack is incredible, with so many talented women lending their voices. Were there any standout tracks for you?
Betty Who: I’m such a huge Maggie Rogers fan. To have Barbie and my montage be accompanied by her was the cherry on top of an amazing experience.
What’s up next for you musically? Have you had anything gestating since the start of quarantine?
Betty Who: Oh yeah, I’m chipping away at some pretty exciting stuff that I’m sure you’ll be hearing!
What are three Betty Who tracks that would be perfect on a quarantine playlist?
Betty Who: “Human Touch” because now the lyrics are strangely post-apocalyptic and appropriate, “The One” for all your boy band dreams to come true, and “Somebody Loves You” because it’s the perfect “dance around while you’re cleaning” or “quarantine organizing” song.
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© Zak Cassar
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