Evangelical Hit

Is October Baby’s Pro-Life Message Misunderstood?

The hit movie has been savaged by critics, but codirector Jon Erwin tells Allison Yarrow its pro-life message was aimed at evangelicals.

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Alabama brothers Jon and Andy Erwin have made what may be the most contentious film of 2012 thus far, and Jon says he’s is shocked that the evangelical, pro-life message of October Baby would resonate enough to score a top 10 slot in the weekend box-office earnings tally—while attracting the kind of critical ire reserved for the worst movies.

“People experience October Baby and are generally moved by it,” said Jon Erwin, whose first feature involves a telegenic Baptist college student searching for her birth mother after learning she’d survived a “botched abortion.” “They’re moved in all directions, but they’re moved.”

Detractors are suspicious of the film apparently being rushed to theaters even as the country is embroiled in a nasty battle over contraceptive coverage and forced-ultrasound legislation proposed in some states. October Baby seems to add fuel to the war on women and choice, manifesting pro-choice activists’ greatest fears.

Shot in four weeks around Alabama and the Gulf Coast South, the film has an earnest script that’s cliché-riddled, with a plot trajectory that’s dizzyingly circuitous and at times half-baked, and swells of indie Christian rock that seem to stand in for mature dialogue, actual medical information about abortions, or even thoughtful silence.

“Communicates in the language of guilt and fear,” said The New York Times. “Heavy-handed proselytizing trumps genuine emotional impact,” writes Todd Jorgenson at Cinemalogue.com. The critique that irked Erwin the most (he says he prefers pure bashing of his film to an attack on its veracity) came from Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who indicts the journey that the protagonist, Hannah, makes: “While the bizarre circumstances found in October Baby presumably could happen in the real world, the odds are something like being struck by lightning and eaten by a shark at the same time. With a winning lottery ticket tucked in your swimsuit.”

Erwin counters that the movie was inspired by the true story of Gianna Jessen, a pro-life activist who survived an abortion by instillation of saline, a rare and dangerous route hardly administered anymore. Growing up home-schooled in an evangelical church in Birmingham, Ala., where he still lives, Erwin wanted to write and tell a story such as Jessen’s to show the guilt a woman endures after having an abortion, and the forgiveness the church provides.

“I’m a member of the evangelical church and I’ve only heard in my whole life one sermon on abortion. We just say ‘I’m pro-life’ and we never talk about it.” Erwin said. To him, it means taking greater responsibility for the well-being of women seeking abortions and for orphaned children.

He said that while he wishes for and has seen a large and relatively diverse audience drawn to the film, “it is a movie for evangelicals to embrace.

With a narrative and characters that are overtly Christian, October Baby’s virtue is that it lacks some unsavory conventions about college kids found in mainstream films. There’s a refreshing absence of sexualized shots of women’s bodies. No shiny upper thighs, pouty lips, breasts popping out of shirts, or cameras lingering on backsides prancing away. Most shots center on the lovely face of Hannah (Rachel Hendrix), and there’s nary a low-cut shirt in sight.

“The audience I most deeply understand is the faith-based audience. They are offended by oversexuality. I wanted to make sure the film was acceptable to them,” Erwin said.

He also was seeking to make a secular audience see religious teens as normal. Early in the film, males and females strictly maintain separate sleeping arrangements on a coed road trip to Mardi Gras. Not one kiss occurs between males and females who are not relatives. In fact, Hannah proclaims herself a virgin while in a hotel room with her would-be suitor, Jason—as he sleeps on the floor.

“[Usually] if there’s a Christian virgin character, she’s the nerd,” said Erwin. “I wanted to swing the pendulum to say Christian home-schooling virgin teenagers, of which I was one—we’re not that weird!”

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It would seem the movie’s love story would naturally occur between the college-aged Hannah and Jason, who telegraph onscreen chemistry at times, but it actually is, somewhat disturbingly, between an overprotective father (John Schneider) and his daughter. Erwin was a new dad himself when he was writing October Baby, and says much of his love and overprotectiveness for his own daughter seeped into Schneider’s character.

“I never knew I could love something this much in this way,” he said of his daughter, Kate, who is now 3. “Selfish thoughts flood your mind. I felt I could become overprotective. It’s a vulnerable thing for a man to feel.”

Hannah’s father withholds lots of information from her throughout the film, albeit to protect her. He also must be asked for permission before his daughter can date that patient guy from the hotel floor, fueling the idea that this woman is a girl who needs protection and who shouldn’t be exercising control of her heart or body on her own. When Jason goes to seek permission, he wears a suit, and she wears a white dress, reminiscent of the purity ball in which young evangelical girls pledge their virginity to their fathers. Erwin concedes this could seem weird to an outsider.

“In the faith-based world, we’re all over the map,” Erwin said. “But old-fashioned virtues are held dear. A guy asking permission to date a young girl, it’s an admirable thing. I was trying to express some of those virtues.”

The scene that Erwin claims alienates viewers most was written by a woman collaborator, and made him weep when he first read it. In it, Hannah finds the nurse who delivered her (Jasmine Guy, who gives the film’s strongest performance), and she tells Hannah that her birth mother “wanted to go to school and have a career and she couldn’t do that with a baby.” Abortion is depicted as savagery, the wrong choice made by wayward girls.

“They told me that it was tissue that couldn’t survive,” the nurse says. “I didn’t see no tissue, just the face of a child.”

When Hannah finds her biological mother, the woman is a successful lawyer who rejects Hannah, then steps into a fancy Mercedes—carrying her new child. Then she is seen weeping in different locations and soon shares the news of her abortion with her husband. The birth mother woman is clearly demonized in the film, though Erwin assures it was not intentional.

“If there is one thing I would change, I would make the adoptive mother a stronger character,” he said.

Asked if he could see how, from a feminist or even just nonevangelical perspective, his film could be distasteful and hard to watch, with the notion of Hannah’s freedom relegated to her carrying her own suitcase on her myriad trips, Erwin was sympathetic, but unconvinced.

“Consider the world I live in. I’ve heard the opposite. I wanted to make an empowering story about this strong female protagonist, but I have to make that within the constraints of my audience,” he said.

The American Family Association ministry funded the film’s release after others declined to touch it, Erwin said. Catholic Online agrees, “The Erwin brothers have created this movie for us, delivering a powerful message of life that will become a tool we can use to witness for the cause of life.”

And yet, as this religious vehicle pervades the mainstream, it is influenced by it. Erwin agrees that Hannah and Jason are far more physically connected in the film’s poster and advertising imagery than in film itself—marketing directed at a secular audience, indeed. At the Alabama premiere, Erwin remembers, there was a coterie of young girls overcome with a Justin Bieber feverlike response to Jason Burkey (Jason in the film). “The girls were screaming like crazy,” he said.

Erwin is adamant that he’s neither activist nor politician, though he acknowledged that October Baby may be turning him into both. At 29, he has worked in film half his life already, forgoing college to learn how to use a camera, and making music videos with Christian and country artists like Darryl Worley and Amy Grant. The film’s richest visual moments are the ones that seem to be straight out of a country-music video—a girl and a guy treading beach rocks or hanging outside a car window, shot with an attractive filter, soulful music the only sound. He says after making a film like October Baby, “there’s no going back to making a country star look hot.”

“Movies present the way we think about life,” Erwin said. “I am a Christian and I make films. They are going to represent the values I have in the world.”