When a pro-life drama opens with a troubled, distracted teenage heroine struggling to focus, falling apart under pressure, and ultimately collapsing before dismayed onlookers, it might be natural to wonder if she might be pregnant and perhaps contemplating an abortion, like the wounded female lead in Bella. (The very first shot in the film depicts a butterfly, recalling Bella’s butterfly motif.)
October Baby, though, has a different story to tell. Hannah’s difficulties are due to a problem pregnancy, yes — but it happened nearly two decades earlier, and 19-year-old Hannah (newcomer Rachel Hendrix) has no inkling of it. She doesn’t even know that she’s adopted.
October Baby is about life after abortion, not so much for the mother as for those children who survive botched abortions — like pro-life activist Gianna Jessen, who was born prematurely in 1977 after a saline abortion procedure, which left her with cerebral palsy.
Jessen’s story, in fact, was the inspiration for the film, although Hannah’s damage is less visible than Jessen’s. She has epilepsy and asthma, and there is mention of a battery of hip surgeries and such in her childhood. We also hear about emotional symptoms: Hannah feels unwanted and has thoughts of suicide. Reeling from the revelation that her parents (John Schneider and Jennifer Price) adopted her after a failed abortion, she decides to go in search of her origins.
Accepting an offer from her lifelong best friend Jason (Jason Burkey), she hitches a ride with friends on a spring-break trip from Birmingham, Ala., to New Orleans, planning to stop en route in Mobile, Ala., where her birth certificate says she was born.
The road trip is an excellent idea, as much for the movie as for Hannah. The road-movie framework is a breath of fresh air, not only giving outward shape to Hannah’s journey of discovery, but also giving her a break from herself, putting her angst on the back burner. The antics of Jason’s buddies, Bmac (American Idol finalist Chris Sligh) and Truman (Austin Johnson), are more than comic relief; they’re a ray of grace in Hannah’s life, whether she knows it or not. And they’re genuinely funny, especially if you had friends like that in college, which I did. (Actually, I had this one friend who was both Bmac and Truman — and he still is.)
A painful conversation with a nurse (Jasmine Guy) and a charged encounter in a law office are among notable encounters that don’t go as Hannah expected or hoped for, which, I think, is how it should be. The filmmakers grasp that journeys of self-discovery rarely offer the closure or disclosure we hope for — and healing, if it comes at all, begins in here, not out there.
Even in a climactic sequence in Birmingham’s lovely Cathedral of St. Paul, where an affable old-school Hollywood priest listens to Hannah’s story and offers some words of ecumenical Christian wisdom, October Baby avoids the outright preachiness of the Sherwood Productions films, including Courageous, which ended with literal preaching in a church. It’s also gratifying to see the pro-life movement’s ecumenical character reflected in this exchange between the Baptist heroine and a Catholic priest.
I can’t help thinking, though, that by the time we get to that cathedral scene adoptive parents may be wincing as Hannah repeats yet again her mantra: “My whole life is a lie … my parents aren’t really my parents.” What’s more, no matter how often she says it, no one ever tells her, “Your life is not a lie. Your adoptive parents are your real parents. They’ve loved you, raised you, sacrificed for you. That is the truth about your life.”
Even when Jason, in the heat of an argument, shouts at Hannah’s father, “She’s not your daughter!” Dad doesn’t rebut this (let alone punch Jason out — both of which, if I were an adoptive father, I think I’d be inclined to do at that moment, possibly at the same time).
There’s too much tell and not enough show with regard to Hannah’s problems, both physical and emotional. We’re told of hip surgeries and so forth, but far from even walking with a limp (like her inspiration Gianna Jessen), Hannah runs and cavorts with ease, walks for hours towing a suitcase, etc. Where is her asthma and her inhaler after the first few scenes? Her father is a physician. Where is his ongoing practical concern about that opening seizure and worries about further attacks — especially when he’s making the case against her going on the road trip? It should have been his central worry, and would have made his position far more reasonable, had the filmmakers thought through his point of view.
Other than a brief glimpse into Hannah’s diary, there is little evidence of chronic emotional problems or thoughts of ending her life. She’s mopey and petulant, yes, and for a character who’s meant to be 19 she’s somewhat immature and naive. She’s also understandably overwhelmed by the revelation about her origins. But none of this amounts to depression. She also has upbeat moods, but nothing suggesting bipolar disorder. I’ve known people with mood disorders and seen them persuasively depicted in films. Take it from me: Hannah is a fairly well-adjusted kid. Surely her parents would know that.
The film’s tagline is: “Every Life Is Beautiful.” Hannah was almost aborted, and it’s true that her life is beautiful. In a way, it’s too obviously true. George Bailey, now: There was someone with problems. If you’re going to argue that life with problems can still be wonderful, give me someone more like that.
Hannah’s problems are mostly theoretical. She has a happy, comfortable home life with loving parents who are sending her to college; she’s gorgeous; she must be talented, driven and charismatic (she landed the lead in the school play somehow, though, again, that’s more given than shown). In real life, she would all but infallibly be one of the most popular girls in school. Given their history, she would certainly have the inside track to be dating Jason (who instead starts out paired with a catty blond girl). I know problems are all relative, and I am not saying Hannah isn’t entitled to a little breakdown, but, at some point, someone ought to tell her: “Get over it.” How will girls who actually have problems feel about this?
For much of the likely audience, questions like these may not matter. October Baby is a well-crafted film with some good performances (particularly Schneider and Burkey) and an unimpeachable message of forgiveness and healing, as well as the value of every life and the evil of abortion. For some viewers, that will be enough to qualify it as the best film of the year. I would rather highlight its strengths and weaknesses in the hope that the filmmakers may dig deeper next time.
It’s certainly a good-looking film — probably the best-crafted Christian-produced film I’ve seen since Bella, easily a cut above Courageous. The directors, brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin — veterans of a slew of Christian music videos and an award-winning documentary — go overboard on the contemporary Christian music-laden soundtrack, but make expressive use of lighting and camera angles and movements, as well as judiciously deployed handheld cameras. (The soundtrack includes songs by Sligh, who briefly strums a guitar onscreen while singing the end of a goofily “deep” song that I wish I knew all the lyrics to.)
October Baby is at its most thoughtful contemplating Hannah’s unresolved feelings about her biological mother and the tragic way that her life began. She may not find the missing piece of her life she was looking for, but she unexpectedly finds another missing piece instead: one that, in a way, could explain the undefined sense of loss in her life. She may have survived the attempted abortion, yet the wounds inflicted by that procedure two decades ago go deeper than her hip surgeries and asthma. This is fruitful territory that might have been more deeply explored.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Restrained references to physical trauma of abortion, including an allusion to dismemberment; some mildly suggestive moments and allusions to sexual intimacy. Teens and up.