Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Pregnancy Project (Front Street Pictures/Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime TV-movie that had its “world premiere” last night, The Pregnancy Project, not to be confused with the recent The Pregnancy Pact though it too, at least ostensibly, is based on a true story that actually broke just last year, when in April 2011 a high-school senior in Toppenish, Washington named Gaby Rodriguez revealed at a school assembly that for most of the school year she had been faking being pregnant as part of a student project to document how her family, teachers and fellow students would treat her differently. The movie, directed by Norman Buckley from a script by Teena Booth, comes off as a sort of modern-day version of Gentleman’s Agreement, only instead of an adult male reporter pretending to be Jewish to get a series of articles on anti-Semitic prejudice, it’s a teenage girl pretending to be pregnant and ending up documenting a world of social and racial (racist) stereotypes. It’s the sort of movie that starts out being almost unwittingly silly but gets stronger and more emotionally intense as it winds on, thanks to Buckley’s understated direction and some quite good performances, notably by Alexa Vega as Gaby and especially by Laci J. Mailey as Tyra, the foster child whose actual pregnancy inspired Gaby’s “project.”

The film comes with a lot of heavy-duty baggage on the Lifetime Web site, including a downloadable two-page “discussion guide” for use of this movie in schools, but aside from the social intent of its makers (to prevent teenagers from having sex, or at least to persuade them to use “protection” — though, intriguingly, birth control for girls is not mentioned as an option even once and, in line with the way the AIDS scare has reshaped sexual morality, the onus of preventing teen pregnancy is put on the males to use condoms), but on the whole it’s a well-done movie that explores not only the clash between sexual responsibilities and hormonal drives but also the ethics of unknowingly involving other human beings in a research project and putting them through emotional changes for the sake of knowledge. One of the more powerful parts of the story is that Gaby herself is the result of her mother’s teen pregnancy, and her sister Sonya (Mercedes de la Zerda) was also a teen mom — and her uncle Javier (Michael Mando) is fiercely judgmental of Gaby and her boyfriend Jorge (Walter Perez) even before her (supposed) pregnancy, and afterwards they nearly come to blows over Jorge’s (whose name, incidentally, is pronounced “George,” Anglo-style, even by the Latino/a characters) knocking up his niece and thereby allegedly ruining her life, driving her off the college-bound track her general smarts and good grades had put her on and sticking her in the same proletarian existence as her own, her sister’s and Jorge’s families.

Gaby finds her reputation at school plummeting even farther and faster than she expected — and a lot of the attacks on her are explicitly racist, including references to “those people” and one fellow student calling her entire family a “baby factory” — while Tyra thinks Gaby is (relatively) lucky because at least Jorge is still part of her life, whereas Devon, the father of Tyra’s unborn child, just walked out on her (as Gaby’s own father did on her mom way back when). There’s also an effectively done suspense element in whether or not Gaby’s secret will come out before her big “reveal” — the only people who actually know are her mom, Jorge (there’s a nicely sour bit of dialogue from him when he asks her, “Just when are we supposed to have this pretend ‘baby’?” — it’s clear he’s not thrilled to have all the stigma of teen fatherhood and none of the joys of unprotected sex with his girlfriend!), the two teachers who are advising her on the assignment and her friend Claire (Sarah Smyth), whom she’s enlisted as her research assistant to document what gets said about her out of her presence — and it’s also fascinating how the strains of a pretend “pregnancy” and the traumas Gaby faces trying to keep both her composure and her cover at least temporarily break up her and Jorge.

About the only comic relief in the film is the scene in which Gaby and her mom cut a basketball in half to make a faintly convincing false belly for her to make her look pregnant (though at the big “reveal” she lifts her shirt and what she’s actually wearing under it is a professionally made medical appliance), and one sequence in which she’s trying on a prom dress and is worried that if she buys one made for a non-pregnant figure, that will “out” her. It’s a neatly done movie, though just how close to the facts it is I have no idea (Gaby herself wrote a memoir which is one of the books listed in the “discussion guide”), and it was a bit disappointing from an aesthetic point of view that the hottest-looking young man in the movie, Aaron (Richard Harmon), was also one of the nastiest in terms of the catty comments he made about Gaby and the sorts of girls who “let” themselves get pregnant in the first place.