“Silencio, old man!” Elliot Page’s Juno snarked at a convenience store cashier in 2007. “I just drank my weight in Sunny D and I gotta go pronto!” This irreverent exchange was some of the film’s opening dialogue, making it clear that Juno was not going to be like the other “accidental-pregnancy” movies of the time. The fierce nonchalance with which the titular character claims her own body gave the story an irresistible drive, carrying Diablo Cody’s script to the Oscars and setting a new precedent for films that concerned pregnancy and abortion.
This conversation took place onscreen almost fifteen years ago now. But the implications of Juno and all the similar films that followed are worth bringing to light in the midst of our current political turbulence. What does true female bodily autonomy look like? How is it shaped by the societal structures around it? The following films ask all of these questions: unflinchingly exploring topics rarely discussed onscreen, as well as setting the tone for the post-Roe world in which we have found ourselves.
“Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa” (2019)
Until June 24, 2022, safe access to an abortion was something that had been officially available to every American since the onset of Roe v. Wade. But the reality is that for a long time, obtaining this healthcare procedure has been a hefty challenge for many in this country. This documentary spends a mere 13 minutes illustrating the effects of the Hyde Amendment — a 1976 provision banning the use of federal funds for abortion — on the callers to an abortion help center in Philadelphia. But the building desperation of all the people most disproportionately affected by American healthcare practices can be felt in every tightly directed second of it.
“Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa” operates on a breathtaking high wire, stringing together the audio of phone calls from struggling women looking for abortions with glaring shots of the minuscule amount of funds that counselors are still able to give. The Academy Award-nominated film quietly demonstrates how time and time again, abortion legislation cracks down hardest on Black and brown women and on those living below the poverty line. It juxtaposes thundering political speeches about the Hyde Amendment “sparing” fetuses from abortion with the real experiences of the women forced to live with the consequences. As “Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa” builds to its subtly haunting conclusion, it leaves its audiences with a storm of questions that no phone line can answer: Who exactly are decisions like this “sparing”? And what does our current political climate mean for all of the documentary’s unseen callers?
Putting Juno onto a list of films concerning abortion rights is probably not all that groundbreaking of a selection. But Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning screenplay — and screenwriting debut — is famous for a reason. Crackling with punchy dialogue and the full-force personality of its delightfully smart-mouth protagonist, Cody’s script became a unique voice for a very stigmatized issue that rarely appeared onscreen, much less in a feature-length teen comedy.
Even almost a decade and a half later, it’s easy to see why Juno still holds up. Elliot Page plays the title role with an unabashed dryness that sets it apart from most other teen female characters in Hollywood, and Juno’s relationships with the women in her life support her throughout the film. There were purportedly very few edits made to the script in its transition from Cody’s original draft to its silver screen debut, and it shows. The film’s acidly hilarious tone was its own breed, unlike anything else in theaters back then and perhaps not even comparable to anything now.
But Juno’s success in this regard likely owes itself to the fact that the story is not really about abortion or pregnancy at all. At its heart, it’s about Juno. Juno’s pregnancy is merely a part of her larger coming-of-age narrative, consistently falling second to the sheer presence of her personality. As she tells Michael Cera’s character that she’s pregnant, Juno lounges casually in an armchair outside his house, smoking a fake pipe with a wry confidence that gives her all the power in this scene. And while the character’s decision to go through with the pregnancy has been championed by many anti-abortion causes over the years, Cody makes it clear that ultimately, this does not matter. Juno is a person, not a body, and whatever choice she makes is valid because she had the agency to make it. Juno presents a bittersweet glimpse into a world where the idea of bodily autonomy is natural, and where, if only for a few minutes at a time, this stigmatized issue bears no stigma at all.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
Perhaps one of the greatest markers of the path to Roe’s reversal has been the past few years’ steady increase in “road trip abortion” movies. But out of all of this genre’s entries, the 2020 drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always is perhaps the most prominent example.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows the journey of rural Pennsylvanian teenager Autumn as she crosses state lines to find an abortion in New York, aided by no one but her cousin and best friend Skylar. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching part of director Eliza Hittman’s third feature film is that it is a feature film: the amount of obstacles Autumn faces to a safe abortion are able to fill a one-hundred minute runtime far too easily. Hittman balances all the impossible twists and tangles of modern-day abortion access onto the close relationship between Autumn and Skylar, a dynamic as compelling as it is heartbreaking.
Similarly to Juno, the film takes care that the abortion’s driving plotline is never prioritized over the two female characters and their devotion to each other. It endears us to Autumn and Skylar at the same time that it forces us to watch them navigate misleading pregnancy centers and spend nights on the New York City streets. Hittman’s expertly orchestrated feel for their friendship just makes it all the more devastating as she shows what they endure for each other, especially once we in the audience consider why exactly they have to go through all this in the first place. Never Rarely Sometimes Always fills in the blanks of the faceless abortion stories that we’ve all heard. Released only two years ago, it now serves as a precursor to a post-Roe world—reminding us first-hand of those who will most face the effects of its reversal, as well as asking how many times this same story will continue to recur.
Main image: Never Rarely Sometimes Always