October “Baby” is a Grown Woman

There’s a sense in which October Baby, the Christian anti-abortion movie that made a stronger-than-expected box office showing when it opened last weekend, depicts a universe familiar to every viewer.

No, it’s not the actual universe. I only said it was familiar. It’s the universe filled with beautiful, wounded, fragile women and the benevolent kindly men who try to control what happens to them, but always for noble reasons. A typical setup, in other words, for both romance stories and religion stories. October Baby is heavy on both.

The “baby” in question is actually a young woman, Hannah (Rachel Hendrix), a winsome-but-sick college student who learns that her multiple physical and mental problems all stem from the fact that her mother tried unsuccessfully to abort her at 24 weeks. This, uh, discovery comes to light after Hannah collapses during a school performance. In the hospital, the doctor reads, in front of Hannah’s parents, a passage from Hannah’s journal. “I feel dead inside,” Hanna evidently wrote days or weeks earlier. “No, something worse than death. I am a child… trying to find a place in the world. Why, God? Why do I feel unwanted?”

Well, obviously, this is a bit contrived as screenwriting goes. Unwanted? Get it? Because her biological mother didn’t want her? Excuse me, I want to keep typing but first I need to remove this ham from my fist.

As it turns out, Hannah’s father Jacob (John Schneider), also a doctor, found his adult daughter’s diary, read it, and then passed it along to his colleague to read. No matter that Hannah’s mother Grace (Jennifer Price) objected to the violation of Hannah’s privacy. These are two good men, and they are concerned, and in the world of October Baby that’s all you need to be able to treat a beautifully damaged and vulnerable woman in whatever way seems best to you.

Rather predictably, Hannah flies into a rage at her parents for concealing this information from her, and embarks on a road trip to go find out the truth. She is helped by her lifelong friend Jason (Jason Burkey), a standup guy who is inexplicably dating a one-dimensional and horrid woman named Alanna (Colleen Trusler). Hannah and Jason set out for Alabama where Hannah was born. (They chastely maintain separate sleeping arrangements, in case you were concerned.)

Time and again, Hannah is assisted by kindly men who are won over by her beauty and vulnerability: a hotel clerk, a priest, and law enforcement. Oh, goodness, especially law enforcement. On two different occasions Hannah’s tears and self-disclosure cause a police officer to opt for lenience and let her go with only a warning. In the second instance, the officer—who moments earlier had been arresting her for breaking into a closed hospital to steal the medical records which for some reason were just left there—even tells her how to find her birth mother’s nurse. Before he lets her go, naturally he must impart his wisdom to Hannah. “To be human is to be beautifully flawed,” he pronounces, and then exhorts her to “[j]udge the crime, not the criminal.”

And, indeed, Hannah meets up with two more “beautifully flawed” women: the now-repentant abortion nurse (played masterfully by Jasmine Guy) and Hannah’s birth mother (Shari Rigby), now a fancypants lawyer in nice suits with a secretary, a sleek office, and a loving family. Oddly, whereas Hannah had wept beautiful tears in the presence of so many male authority figures, now she is dry-eyed and hushed. Her birth mother goes ashen, denies knowing what she’s talking about, and asks her to leave.

No matter. Hannah decides to forgive them all as Christ forgives. That’s not my inference: it’s in the script.  She slips into her birth mother’s office and leaves her a note “I forgive you,” which sends fancy lawyer lady into a fit of beautifully flawed and redemptive tears of her own. Hannah forgives her adoptive parents for concealing the truth, the nurse, and herself. She learns about the brother she lost, visits his grave, and finally goes on a date with the now-available Jason. 

(That date, incidentally, also happened at Hannah’s dad’s initiation. “I don’t want to pry,” Hannah’s dad says, right before he asks Jason what his intentions are, urges him to ask Hannah on a date, and then eavesdrops as Jason does so. Attention Hannah’s father: look into boundaries)

So that’s that. October Baby strains and strives to have a universal message about abortion, sometimes to unintentionally humorous effect. The unnamed university, for example, is only referred to as “the university,” by students, parents, and even a university official giving a speech. The unnamed hospital has a sign that says “Hospital.”

But it isn’t really universal, is it? It depicts what abortion would be like if women were all beautiful, tragic figures, living in a world run by men who treated them with, not respect, but a kind of indulgent kindness.

Well, okay. In the real world of policy, poverty, pregnancy complications, and domestic violence are often important factors too. But never mind that. Just look at the sad, beautiful, fragile women in need of forgiveness. October Baby’s usefulness for understanding reproductive health policy is akin to Sleeping Beauty’s usefulness for understanding anesthesia protocols: Limited. But it’s a pretty story, in its way. 

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