Gillian Robespierre makes her directorial debut with Obvious Child, a sweet and funny romantic comedy in which the pair of lovers must cope with getting an abortion before they become something more than a one night stand.
Gillian Robespierre’s very funny and sweet new comedy, Obvious Child, opens with Donna (Jenny Slate, real-life stand-up comic and SNL alum) doing a stand-up routine about the comic reality of having a human vagina. Among other things, she talks about what this will do to a pair of underwear over the course of the day: it’s not pretty, but her account of it is hilarious. It’s an à propos start to a film that is very much about the kinds of situations you might find yourself in, if you happen to have female anatomy: unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy, and dealing with that is a tough thing to have on your shoulders.
Most recent romantic comedies that have dealt with unwanted pregnancies — from Juno to Knocked Up — have avoided dealing with abortion by using the decision to keep the child to propel the story. In the movies, even recently, abortions tend to be a scary, tragic thing: whether it’s April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road giving herself a home abortion, which kills her, or the crusading trials and tribulations of Vera Drake. Television seems to be the place that abortion gets discussed as a safe, viable, and exercised option – both Christina Yang and Addison Montgomery have three abortions between them on Grey’s Anatomy — but both of them have to get guilt-tripped by their respective partners, who get considerable screen time to air their complaints and feelings of betrayal.
So it’s a big step forward that Robespierre’s indie comedy never treats whether Donna should have an abortion as a debate: she walks into Planned Parenthood with her mind made up and no-one ever tries to destroy her resolve. Instead, the film addresses what happens once that decision is made. We’ve still got a culture of silence around the a-word, even though one in three women in the US have had one. The fact that we don’t talk about abortion causes Donna to worry about disappointing her divorced mother (Polly Draper) and how to tell the father, who was a one-night stand that could turn into more. But the fact that she’s going through this also helps bring the women of her life out of the abortion closet, sharing stories about the tough decision that they ultimately never regretted: I suspect Robespierre hopes to encourage the same coming out from her audience. There’s also the very real issue of the steep cost of the procedure for someone without insurance, and the anxiety that brings, which the film brings up rightly, but then forgets about too quickly.
After Donna’s stand-up routine which opens the film, her boyfriend dumps her, ostensibly because he’s tired of her talking about their relationship in her act, but more immediately because he’s already shtupping her friend. This sends her on a downward spiral, that’s more whimsical and funny than it is concerning: chugging red wine out of glass jars, making way too many drunk calls to her ex, and even staking out his house, leaving it to coincidence to decide if she should leave. And it all culminates one night when this self-proclaimed very Jewish girl — “I’m like the menorah on top of the Christmas tree that burns it down” — meets a very nice, straight-laced Christian man, Max (Jake Lacy), with whom she gets drunk and has sex.
Their initial courtship is charming, even if it is full of slurred lines and goofy laughter. He can match her wisecrack for wisecrack. Although he may be a successful businessman, while she’s a struggling comic just barely making rent, they do have a shared sensibility and intelligence. And they have fun together. There’s a lovely montage in which they dance in their underwear to the film’s title song, Paul Simon’s Obvious Child, as a prelude to getting it on. Of course, they’re both so drunk that they forget to use a condom.
When she shows up at Planned Parenthood to confirm her pregnancy, it’s so early on that she has to wait several weeks to be far enough along to abort. In the intervening weeks, Donna keeps running into Max: he tracks her down at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books where she works, and even runs into her at her mother’s apartment, since it turns out he’s her former MBA student. He’s keen on her and she is on him, too, but it takes her a while to admit it since his very gentile-ness is an easy excuse to avoid him.
Pursuing him means dealing with the awkward situation of being currently pregnant with his soon-to-be-terminated fetus, but at such an early stage in the relationship that it seems unreasonable to tell him and put it on that level. In the end, her decision is none of his business anyway. A simple comment from him about how he’d like to be a grandfather is enough to waylay her from spilling the beans. Of course, being the obvious child she is, Donna deals with this unnecessarily poorly, dragging out the secret, and revealing it somewhat indelicately, although it’s hard to blame her for it: how do you broach this topic anyway, in the middle of a second date?
It’s a credit to Robespierre that it’s clearly Donna’s problem that she doesn’t know how to divulge her pregnancy and not that Max is unapproachable. Robespierre treats Max with respect, even though he spends most of the movie unaware of the events he’s indadvertedly precipitated. He’s smart and evolved enough to see Donna clearly, and to like her, warts and all: she’s a good foil to his straight man. He’s goofy but sweet, straight-laced but still appreciative of her bathroom humour. He’s almost too perfect, constantly forgiving of Donna’s immature behaviour and so together that you wonder, to a degree, why he’d be willing to put up with it. On paper, he seems like a fantasy or an ideal, and yet Lacy makes Max constantly real and grounded, dopey and bashful in a sweet way. His reaction to the news of Donna’s abortion is the film’s crowning achievement, and I was moved to tears of joy from it. It’s perfect, even in its imperfections.
My one qualm with the film is that it seems to excuse Donna’s abortion because of her immaturity: it’s okay because she’s clearly not equipped to be a parent. But I’d hate to think that the message the movie might give off is that abortion is only an acceptable choice for a woman child, and not for a more emotionally mature or financially secure woman. While Donna finally gets her shit together enough to meet Max halfway, there’s a missed opportunity for her to show some more growth in other arenas: the bookstore where she works is closing down, but it doesn’t seem to nudge her out of apathy and into greater seriousness about her career. In giving an honest and often very funny depiction of how having an abortion might factor into someone’s life, Obvious Child doesn’t delve deep enough into Donna, and the people around her, to also have a growth arc for her not related to the abortion.