Students push strollers through the halls of Gloucester High School, and local leaders work to cover up a pregnancy pact among teens in a made-for-television movie that airs tonight and is sure to spark anger here, where the real-life controversy caused pain and embarrassment.
Lifetime Television's movie "The Pregnancy Pact" is billed as a fictional drama, taking on the issue of teen pregnancy in America and is "inspired by a true story."
But local viewers will find many of the images of Gloucester — including real video of public figures and the high school woven tightly through the fictional world — more than mere inspiration.
The film, which airs tonight at 9 p.m., opens by fading into the facade of the real high school with the words "Gloucester High School 2008" at the bottom of the screen. Shots of Stacy Boulevard, Main Street shops and the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Memorial soon follow.
"Reality" ends soon after.
For many who had been at the center of the real controversy, Lifetime's decision to, with a few keystrokes, contradict what students, parents, medical professionals and news crews from as far away as Japan reported — that there was no pregnancy pact — will be troubling.
Fiction and the pact
"It was a fictional story that they made to look true," said Dr. Brian Orr, the former medical director of the Gloucester High School Health Center, after watching an advance copy of the movie that the Times received from Lifetime.
"This movie tries to stimulate a discussion on the issue of teen pregnancy, but the way they do it is bad. It is a bad movie using a sensationalized portrayal," Orr said.
In addition to the most sensational fiction of the film — that at least four students, including a 15-year-old protagonist, made an agreement to get pregnant — the movie plays with the struggle among city officials over how the crisis started and the best way to respond.
Once the film establishes the "pact" as real, very real footage of Mayor Carolyn Kirk and other city officials are sprinkled throughout — telling reporters that there is no evidence of such a pact — taking on the appearance of a cover-up.
In some cases, real video images appear on television screens within the fictional world of the film, blurring the lines of what is real even further.
"What the movie is portraying is that the pact was covered up," said Orr. "It implies that there was a cover-up and we got rid of the principal as a scapegoat. I think it is farfetched for any community to do it that."
Kirk, for whom the pregnancy crisis was seen by many as a political low point, suffers perhaps the most unflattering portrayal, as cuts of her statements and wayward June 23, 2008, press conference are folded throughout the narrative.
These clips include Kirk's "foggy in his memory" reference to then-Gloucester High School Principal Joseph Sullivan, as well as a more obscure comment during a television interview that the existence of a "pact" would explain the rise in pregnancies at the school.
Kirk has said she will not watch the film and has only offered this comment.
"Gloucester is so much more than this one story," Kirk said in a prepared statement yesterday. "This movie revisits a painful time for our community, but one that has united our residents and public officials to work on behalf of our young people.
"We're a city of great beauty with a wonderful history that faces the same challenges as communities across the country," Kirk's statement continued.
While Kirk is represented through video footage in the film, Sullivan is replaced by the fictional "Principal Brockman" — a gruff, balding presence in the school who is initially a roadblock to productive discussion of the issues surrounding the pregnant girls.
But as the film reveals the pact to be real, the principal becomes a sympathetic figure, eventually run out of town by the mayor.
Sullivan continued to be a extremely popular figure in the high school and community, even after he resigned in a cloud of suspicion over whether he brought on the controversy with his words to Time magazine.
To this day, Sullivan has only said he cannot remember telling Time there was a "pact" at the school, although he denied being "foggy in his memory." The Times had quoted Sullivan at the time, saying that there was a "clique" of girls in the high school trying to become pregnant.
"The Pregnancy Pact" has been the subject of, and probably has benefited from, a surge of free publicity based on whether it is a revisionist history.
Yesterday, "Pregnancy Pact" Executive Producer Robert Sertner told the Times he decided that mixing fiction and real-life elements under the "inspired by" banner would allow the movie to reach the widest possible audience.
Ultimately, he said he hopes the film will not only reach the Lifetime demographic — women ages 18 to 49 — but also become a staple of school sex education classes and reach teens whose relationships to the filmed image has changed since the rise of reality television.
Sertner said the video footage was used "in order to talk to (teenagers) instead of preach to them; they live in a different world."
"There is a texture of storytelling that is different from a traditional dramatic movie that gets through to them better," Sertner said.
As for the impact of the film on those who lived through the real thing, Sertner said he thought "The Pregnancy Pact" was fair.
"I would like to think that as a filmmaker that I was very careful," Sertner said. "I tried to make this the beginning of the conversation and not the end of the debate. I hope they don't feel they are treated unfairly."
As for what local viewers tuning in tonight can expect, "The Pregnancy Pact" includes a mix of melodrama, teen-centric romance and didacticism familiar to the genre.
Sample dialogue between pact members: "We thought you were going to chicken out."
The film does show a careful reading of news accounts of the crisis, including the political fallout, disagreements among various school and medical professionals and members of the community.
The role of the local hospital is not mentioned.
The Gloucester of "The Pregnancy Pact" is a collection of fishing village cliches, bad New England accents and religious orthodoxy.
The protagonist's choice to become pregnant can be traced, at least partially, to her father's financial straits caused by overfishing.
Ideologically, the film begins with what appears to be a liberal slant on birth control and family planning, but softens along the way toward more traditional attitudes about abstinence — as long as parents and teens "start talking."
But for Orr, the film's public service rhetoric doesn't make up for the distortions of why 18 girls became pregnant in one year, and what he says are inaccurate portrayals of teen pregnancy.
"There were 18 different reasons why individuals got pregnant," Orr said. "There wasn't enough portrayed of the reality of what happens. There are high risks of premature birth. There are high risks of sudden infant death syndrome."
The good news, Orr said, is that — in the two years since the crisis first surfaced — teen pregnancy in Gloucester appears to have declined and changes made by officials, including expanded school access to birth control, have been positive.
But those in the community looking for the attention of the pregnancy crisis to go away will have to wait at least a little longer.
A traditional documentary, endorsed by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy and called "The Gloucester 18," is set to premiere in Cambridge in March.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or via e-mail at email@example.com