No one who goes into Unplanned with any knowledge of the subject matter will get surprised by its disturbing subject matter and the uncomfortable questions it raises about evil and complicity in it. What might surprise them is how evenly distributed those uncomfortable questions become, and how personal the film gets in its disturbing reveals. Thanks to both, Unplanned delivers a solid emotional impact as it faithfully retells the story of Abby Johnson, who went from a star at Planned Parenthood to one of its most determined and most effective critics.
Full disclosure: Hot Air has covered Johnson’s story on several occasions, and I have interviewed Johnson several times over the past ten years since her decision to leave Planned Parenthood. In fact, I wrote an article here at the time of her departure, based on a KBTX report that is no longer available. My sympathies on this subject are well known, but it’s still worth explicitly noting my opposition to abortion and Planned Parenthood at the top.
Unplanned takes us through Johnson’s life beginning at college, but it first presents the catalyst for her life-changing decision to abandon a successful career at the nation’s premiere abortion mill. Johnson gets called to assist in an ultrasound-guided abortion, the first time in her eight years that had ever happened. What she sees in the ultrasound horrifies her, and it also horrifies the audience as the baby fights to avoid the catheter and struggles to the last moment of life. At that point, the film circles back in time twice — the first time to show her decision to get involved with Planned Parenthood as a junior in college, and then again to reveal two abortions Johnson herself had through the same clinic.
Given that the film faithfully presents Johnson’s memoir (also titled Unplanned), that will not surprise anyone who read the book. However, what may surprise viewers is the nuances in the film’s treatment of the subject matter and the people in Johnson’s life. Those expecting a crudely drawn didactic melodrama might be disappointed, but as Johnson’s character tells us in narration, this story isn’t pretty or easy. Our first experience with pro-life protesters outside of the clinics — which was also Johnson’s first experience with them — is ugly. It takes some time before sympathetic characters emerge on that side of the fence. In contrast, Johnson’s co-workers and friends inside the clinic are loving and supporting women who seem genuinely caring about Johnson. The only real villain in the film, Johnson’s boss, starts off as a bit cold and calculating but not outright evil. Even when we see her moral bankruptcy being revealed over the course of the film, there’s no such condemnation of the other workers in the clinic — and no sense that the boss’ behavior can be explained by anything other than a commitment to abortion above all else.
That’s not to say that Unplanned takes no position on abortion; anyone who knows Johnson knows the purpose of her activism, her memoir, and the reason for sharing so much of her personal history around abortion. However, the fairness of the approach makes Unplanned a much more effective film, and Johnson’s own history provides more genuine emotional impact. By the time the film circles back around to that ultrasound-guided abortion later in the film, we better comprehend the pain all around this story.
We also are reminded that real people exist on both sides of the fence who think they’re doing good, some of whom are our friends and neighbors. That might be one of the more uncomfortable truths in Unplanned, and one of the biggest challenges for pro-life activists like Johnson, whose group And Then There Were None has transitioned over 500 abortion-clinic workers out of the industry. Unplanned shows that Johnson grasps this challenge very clearly.
The film features a cast of relative unknowns who nevertheless do a very good job of keeping the audience engaged, especially Ashley Bratcher as Abby Johnson and Robia Scott as her boss Cheryl. Emma Elle Roberts does well in a key role as Marilisa, whose friendship across the fence helped Johnson eventually cross it. The production values are solid if straightforward. The focus remains on the story and on Johnson’s journey across the fence. Johnson’s well-told story in Unplanned provides an opportunity for everyone to see clearly across that fence, and to the imperfect humanity on both sides of it.
Unplanned is rated R for some realistic and graphic scenes in the clinic. That seems like a bit of an overreaction after watching the film, but it’s not for young children either. Teens should be able to handle it.