South Dakota (PG)
There are many controversial questions surrounding the subject of abortion. When does life begin, for instance. Or when can a foetus feel pain. Or has a woman who has been raped more of a ‘right’ to seek termination of a pregnancy than someone who has become pregnant by choice, or carelessness.
The state of South Dakota tends to polarise views on the proposed legalisation of abortion almost 50-50 in any poll conducted there so it’s perhaps fitting that a film dealing with the theme is partially set there.
Mixing documentary footage with the real but dramatised stories of two young women, Chris and Barb, who become pregnant against their wishes and make different choices in the aftermath, it’s described by producer/director Bruce Isacson as a ‘dramumentary’.
Ronald Reagan, in an early clip, makes the point that all those who argue in favour of abortion have already been born. A later insert has Mother Teresa giving an impassioned speech on the subject to a huge audience at the United Nations. In between, we have pro-life and pro-choice advocates weighing in with their views, most of which are cogent and articulate.
A notable exception to this is an outpouring from feminist attorney Gloria Allred who claims astonishingly that an embryo is a ‘parasite’ in a woman’s body, to be disposed of as the woman wishes. She describes pregnancy as ”the last legal form of slavery”. (Her outburst caused one outraged sophomore to counter, ”And abortion is the last legal form of murder.”)
While the director gives us a sympathetic appraisal of Chris, who decides to have an abortion, and indeed Cat (Emma Bates), the rather casual woman who guides her through it, the film’s main slant is pro-life.
It puts forward many powerful arguments for its case, as well as some captivating pre-natal footage of embryos which suggests that a lot more activity, and cell development, takes place much earlier than one might have imagined heretofore.
The fact that the film has been promoted by Motive Entertainment, the company that handled The Passion of the Christ, will further this view, as will a scene where a physically and emotionally drained Barb is rescued from an abortion clinic staffed by people who seem to have no conception (pardon the pun) of what she’s going through.
Chris and Cat, in contrast, seem to trivialise what’s happening, apart from one or two meaningful exchanges.
Chris, played by Tessa Thompson, is a young black runaway girl who has been forced to have sex against her will and has become pregnant as a result.
When we first see her, she’s scavenging for food from bins on Skid Row in Philadelphia. Barb (Piper Ferrone), a high school cheerleader-cum-athlete, comes from more comfortable economic circumstances in South Dakota.
She’s only 14 when she becomes pregnant by her 15-year-old boyfriend Shon (Mickey Zobel). He wants her to have an abortion but she’s conflicted.
Her family are understandably hysterical when they get the news, which she hides until her ‘bump’ makes daily life (not to mention running) too difficult.
It’s an inflammatory theme but handled here with gentleness and even humour. The film gives us much food for thought in the viewpoints espoused by an erudite assortment of political and legal spokespeople.
The constant juxtaposition of drama and discourse may appear jarring to some but Isacson keeps all the segments short. He also features the real-life son of Barb and Shon in a heartfelt cameo.
Pro-choice advocates may argue that this ‘happy ever after’ scenario is skewed. They may also point out that he fails to show footage of Chris at the end as he does of Barb (we learn about her only through a post-movie note) but nobody could deny that he gives both factions much time to air their views, and resists any urge to be sensationalistic.
The film leaves you with a warm glow, which is perhaps the best pro-life argument of all.