Expanded from her own 2009 short of the same title, Gillian Robespierre presents us with “Obvious Child,” a stunningly sharp-witted debut film about a fast-talking stand-up comedian whose drunken one-night stand turns into an unplanned pregnancy and her decision to abort it. A film that has been labeled the first ever “abortion comedy” on numerous accounts. However, it is so much more than that.
Director: Gillian Robespierre, 84 mins
28-year-old Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is introduced during the opening credits, which are interspersed with clips from her stand-up act, as she performs in a gritty Brooklyn bar, the kind that has a unisex bathroom with graffiti sprayed all over its walls. Donna’s act is riddled with raunchy, confessional, body-conscious humour and she doesn’t shy away from any life situation, no matter how serious. Her set is disarmingly honest, personal and legitimately funny, and usually ends up getting more cheers than jeers from the audience.
A recent break-up, and the loss of Donna’s day job at the brilliantly titled “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books”, knocks her off her game and she finds herself seeking solace from her divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) and her pragmatic feminist roommate (Gaby Hoffmann). The plot pivots when Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy), a courteous, square but handsome business school grad, who impregnates her after a broken-condom one-nighter. Donna contemplates telling Max that she’s having an abortion as he keeps popping up in her life and further pursues her.
In some ways, “Obvious Child” can be viewed as a romantic comedy, although if Donna and Max had been given the commercial rom-com treatment we’re accustomed to, it probably would have overplayed the stark contrasts between the two characters. Their affinity for one another is one of the film’s most delightful and bonafide elements, as both of them don’t really have the slightest clue how to proceed and constantly find themselves in semi-awkward, but charming, encounters.
The film’s sure advantage is Slate, whose dramatic range comes as a nice surprise after a multitude of tiny, comedic roles on the small screen (“Saturday Night Live,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Bob’s Burgers”). With “Obvious Child” she tremendously displays a much more vulnerable and empathetic side. Donna’s comedy is not just a tool to keep people at bay, or a way to joke herself out of a serious life. Vulnerability is a part of who she is, and it’s a definite factor in her act. When Donna learns that she is pregnant, the situation throws her for a loop and she is put through some serious emotional mood swings. It’s a teary scene that proves most affective when Donna visits the clinic and schedules the big appointment, coincidentally and very anti-romantically, on Valentine’s Day. Here, Slate provides us with a character who has walls built up, but ones that can easily come crashing down.
The second half is where the film gets serious. With Robespierre at the helm, however, never too serious. The writer/director manages to shatter a lot of clichés and rebuild them as truths, covering a lot of psychological ground in a mere 84 minutes, and does so terrifically by keeping humour at the film’s forefront. If you compare movies with similar circumstances like “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” in which its impregnated heroines decide to forgo the procedure for the sake of some unspoken duty, and can’t even utter the word “abortion” (“Knocked Up’s” weak schma-shmortion does not make the cut), “Obvious Child” is refreshingly honest. Donna never doubts the wisdom of having an abortion, while Max never doubts her right to make her own decision. That’s what makes this film paramount. It’s so progressive in its attitudes towards reproductive rights, making it unnecessary to justify them.
The choice to terminate a pregnancy is rarely shown in our culture, especially rare in movies. Simply mentioning “abortion” seems to remain taboo in mainstream American cinema (again, referring to it as an a-word is just downright cowardly). It’s a shame that in this day and age a film like “Obvious Child” is considered revolutionary and groundbreaking by Hollywood standards. Nevertheless, filmmakers should take note of Robespierre’s candour and join the club of young, female culture makers to produce more thought-provoking entertainment, in order to create a larger progressive perspective in today’s pop culture-ridden society.
One mustn’t forget that one of the greater accomplishments of “Obvious Child” involves its understanding to make familiar ingredients work just fine on their own terms, seeming effortless by putting someone extremely charismatic, with a knack for ad-libbing, in the lead. It’s a film about the behaviour of its comically downtrodden heroine, that has the ability to defy her dramas with jokes, and the wonderful support group of friends and family that surround her, helping her deal with the vicissitudes of modern life, that can sometimes act as an ambush.