Madeline Lessard attends St. Monica. (Nancy Pastor / For The Times )
It was an unusual field trip for the nearly 1,000 high school girls who spilled from yellow school buses in front of a Westwood theater one recent October morning. They came from all over the county: the tony enclaves of San Marino, Pasadena and Beverly Hills and the grittier reaches of Boyle Heights and South L.A.
The movie they had come to see, " South Dakota: A Woman's Right to Choose," had already been vetted by a handful of their administrators, who were satisfied with the film's depiction of teen pregnancy and abortion.
Afterward, they would have a rowdy town-hall discussion, moderated by Dolores O'Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries, whose songs are used in the soundtrack. With no boys present, went the theory, girls would be more comfortable opening up.
"Do you think women should have the right to terminate a pregnancy?" O'Riordan asked the girls. In the past, the singer has harshly criticized abortion but said in an interview she prefers not to disclose how she feels. "Don't be shy, totally say what you think. It's your life, it's your future."
The girls, from four Catholic schools and 11 public schools, would need little prodding.
A handful spoke in favor of choice and a few were ambivalent. But the majority, including one who said she was the mother of a toddler, spoke passionately against abortion. One girl, from St. Monica Academy, led a cheer thanking her mother "for having me."
Fact and fiction
The movie, a blend of feature and documentary -- which its 60-year-old neophyte director Bruce Isacson calls a "dramumentary" -- follows the stories of two pregnant teenagers. One is based on the true story of a girl named Barb ( Ralph Lauren model Piper Ferrone), a white, 14-year-old track star in South Dakota with a loving, long-term boyfriend. The second girl, Chris ("Veronica Mars" actress Tessa Thompson), is a composite character, an African American runaway from Philadelphia who was raped. She is taken in by Cat Megill (Emma Bates), a real woman who started the New York City group Haven Coalition, which finds beds in private homes for indigent pregnant women seeking abortions. The action is punctuated by historical footage as well as interviews with advocates and scientists on both sides of the debate.
Though legal abortion has been enshrined in law since 1973, the issue is certainly back in the news. In May, the Gallup Poll found that a slim majority of Americans now describe themselves as "pro-life." The month, Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller was slain at a church, allegedly by an anti-abortion activist. In Washington, abortion is a focus of the clamorous healthcare debate. And while unplanned pregnancy is a well-worn subject in popular culture, abortion is usually avoided. The protagonists of recent hit films such as "Juno" and "Knocked Up" opt against abortion.
"People haven't been discussing this issue properly," said Isacson, who described himself as a Hollywood deal maker who worked on the "Ellery Queen" TV series in the 1970s, someone who only recently became aware of the country's great abortion divide. "Both sides don't express themselves well. Where is the information? Where is the intelligent discussion?" (Advocates might say he simply hasn't been paying attention.)
Isacson said his movie's purpose is to edify, inform and not take sides, but some may view "South Dakota," intentionally or not, as subtly weighted against abortion. The film's emotional highlight, after all, is the rescue of 14-year-old Barb by her boyfriend from an abortion clinic exam room and its grossly insensitive nurses. As for Chris, even the staunchest abortion foes usually concede that abortion is acceptable in the case of rape.
The movie was funded by private investors, said Isacson, who would not disclose the budget. ( Iowa, where part of it was filmed, kicked in $1.67 million. That state's film program has since been suspended and is now the subject of a criminal investigation; Isacson, who purchased a new Land Rover with Iowa funds, said his expenditures were appropriate.)
It is promoted by Motive Entertainment, which handled the grass-roots marketing for Mel Gibson's 2004 hit "The Passion of the Christ" and last year's "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," a documentary by Ben Stein exploring claims that science teachers who discuss intelligent design face academic discrimination.
The Westwood screening and discussion was "a guinea pig for something we may do all across the country," said Motive Chief Executive Paul Lauer, whose website boasts of "targeted strategies" to reach "niche audiences" that include "350,000 churches and pastors . . . and thousands of organizations in the underserved 'faith market.' " Lauer, says the site, is "one of the most well connected entrepreneurs in the family, values, and faith-based markets."