The award-winning writer Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” I’m sure everyone can relate to this, especially Abby Johnson.
In her memoir, “Unplanned,” she told how she went from being the director of a Planned Parenthood to zealous pro-life advocate after observing an abortion. Now she’s telling it again in the film version of the same title, directed and produced by the folks behind the Christian film “God’s Not Dead.” It was released this week with an R rating, due to the abortion scenes.
In its opening weekend, it upstaged expectations by making $6 million, twice as much as expected, in 1,059 theaters. It will open in 1,700 theaters this coming weekend.
I saw “Unplanned” at a screening. The film’s greatest strength—Abby’s character evolution—also functions as its greatest weakness: this is a story solely about abortion. This will likely attract and repel moviegoers for the exact same reason.
Pro-life advocates will see “Unplanned” and find solidarity and confirmation that their strongest talking points and beliefs are true. Pro-choice advocates will likely avoid “Unplanned” and criticize it because of their conviction that abortion is a right, regardless of how it played out in one woman’s personal story.
“Unplanned’s” target audience thus lies somewhere in the middle. I hope skeptics see the movie and are informed, moved, and persuaded, both because of the storytelling aspects of the film and in spite of them. Here’s what I mean.
‘Unplanned’ Is Not A Cheesy Christian Flick
Stories are powerful. Christians should tell them the right way. I’m a Christian, and I can’t stand cheesy Christian flicks. Inauthentic stories made in a low-quality fashion send the wrong message to the audience.
I’m convinced that if Jesus’s in-person followers were alive today, one of them would have been a filmmaker. But he would not be making “Left Behind”-type films—cheesy, melodramatic, dystopian flicks. He would be making everything from films like “Dunkirk” to “Avengers: Infinity War.” In other words, Christians should make the best art they can, and it shouldn’t always contain explicitly Christian characters, a Christian plot, a Christian script, and an overdone Christian theme song.
Thankfully, Johnson agrees. At a dinner I attended with Heroic Media, a Texas-based organization that spreads pro-life messages with a high-tech twist, Johnson said she had basically one stipulation: “I don’t want [“Unplanned”] to be a cheesy Christian flick.” The audience laughed.
In that regard, “Unplanned” avoids most of the usual religious movie pitfalls, save for a few warm and fuzzy scenes here and there. Even those, one could argue, come off as building character depth and providing emotional connection to Abby’s life as a wife and mother. Production-wise, the film is high-quality.
The main character is played by Ashley Bratcher, best known for her role in “Princess Cut.” Bratcher plays Abby with complexity, embodying with ease both a warm mother and loving wife yet powerful, charismatic, stoic abortion provider. Abby is likable and real, and her character evolution is one of the most powerful aspects of the film.
‘Unplanned’ Still Might Not Fully Appeal to Pro-Choicers
I tried to watch “Unplanned” from the position of someone who might be pro-choice or undecided. The biggest hurdle would have been getting me there: Why would anyone want to go see a movie about abortion? This isn’t a story with characters who experience an abortion like “The Giver” or “Cider House Rules.” This is the plot.
If you’re pro-choice, would you see a film that you know immediately from the outset is trying to debunk those beliefs? The film is called “Unplanned” because Abby’s book shares the title and it’s obviously a play on the name of the clinic that used to employ her. Still, it’s overt, and many pro-choice moviegoers may shy away from even seeing the film because they aren’t likely to want their position challenged.
Once there, a skeptic faces another obstacle: “Unplanned” is not subtle. The film’s biggest flaw—and others might say its greatest strength—is that it makes no bones about its plot. Instead of just Here is a story, learn from it what you will, it shouts: This is a movie about abortion. Change your mind.
It’s not uncommon for a film to tell a message inside a story, rather than a story with an accompanying message. In the case of “Unplanned,” the message and the story are the same: Abby believed wholeheartedly in abortion rights, rose up the ranks of her local Planned Parenthood facility to become “Employee of the Year” in 2008, and didn’t think there was a problem with abortion until she actually saw one. Then the narrative she had been telling herself fell apart and she became firmly pro-life.
The most eye-opening moment in the film is when we watch as Abby participates in an ultrasound-guided abortion, which she had never seen before. The film starts with most of this scene, flashes back several years, then builds to it again. We hear the baby’s heartbeat, see the baby trying to move away from doctor’s forceps, and hear the sound of the suction tube, filling with blood. It’s ghoulish and uncomfortable.
It should be. In real life, that same abortion would likewise be the same. It’s part of what earned the film it’s R rating. This is both compelling and offputting, depending on your view. However, when I asked Abby about the rating, she shrugged. “I thought it could have been more graphic, to be honest,” she said.
However, at the same time, the film is a bit on the nose. As powerful as that abortion scene is, opening with it feels forced. It would be kind of like if “Braveheart” opened with the sequence in the film where William Wallace is getting tortured. With his limbs stretched on a rack and his body disemboweled, Wallace still sees his beloved, murdered wife in his mind’s eye and screams that his people deserve freedom.
The torture scene is essentially the climax of the entire plot. Starting there would ruin the whole story of how an orphaned boy finds his manhood in freeing his fellow Scots from English tyranny.
“Unplanned” opens with a voiceover of Abby warning us the film’s plot will be difficult to swallow, then shows that scene. We learn later this is the the turning point of her conversion from pro-choice director of Planned Parenthood to devoted pro-lifer.
At that point, after the first ten minutes or so, the audience isn’t just clued in to what the film might hold, and not even told what the film might hold, but bludgeoned over the head with what the film holds. Some people might argue that the film had to be this way because abortion is wrong, unethical, and certainly traumatic, and I can certainly understand that argument, but again, recall the desired target audience: They don’t know that, or they aren’t sure, and we as pro-life advocates want to help them understand.
Could ‘Unplanned’ Be a Modern Day ‘Schindler’s List’?
Mike Perkins, the president and CEO of Heroic Media, said, “The power of one life saved creates hope for a people. We are the hope and this movie is going to be our battle cry. This will be our “Schindler’s List.” It’s easy to see why pro-life advocates believe this is the case.
It’s good to see significant effort and resources dedicated to bringing a powerful story to the big screen. Unlike “Gosnell,” which was focused more on the criminal aspect of infanticide, this feels so much more personal, relatable, and powerful. Abby is quirky, fun, compelling, while a complete advocate for abortion, just like so many of our own friends and family members.
In the end, she changes her mind with when the curtain is lifted. For so many people, this is how real-life conversion or persuasion occurs. To this end, “Unplanned” adds value to the collection of stories about a life that is changed when a person sees the truth about something for the first time.