by Matt Levine
The marketing campaign for Obvious Child would have us believe that the film is an edgy “abortion comedy” populated with quirky young New Yorkers. The film’s trailer emphasizes this raw but endearing, self-consciously candid tone, in which twenty-something characters aloofly mention condoms, abortions, and “doing sex.” In other words, we might expect the Williamsburg version of Juno—but, as we all know by now, ad campaigns can be misleading. The attempt to prepackage movies into easily digestible categories faces a challenge with a film as sincere, unique, and light-footed as Obvious Child. A surprisingly affecting comedy that’s admirably non-judgmental towards all of its characters, the film is definitely not a polemic—it is, in fact, one of the few American movies to date that has addressed abortion through humane and tender sympathy rather than the bullying tactics of hot-button dramas or political documentaries.
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Producer: Elisabeth Holm
Writers: Gillian Robespierre, Karen Maine (story), Elisabeth Holm (story)
Cinematographer: Chris Teague
Editors: Casey Brooks, Jacob Craycroft
Music: Chris Bordeaux
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Paul Briganti
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 6, 2014
US Distributor: A24
My fears regarding Obvious Child’s cutesy-shocking tone were put to rest almost immediately: the first scene is a stand-up performance by Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, best known to many viewers as Jean-Ralphio’s sister on Parks and Recreation) at a Brooklyn dive bar with graffiti-covered walls and a unisex bathroom. Donna’s act is crude and unflinching, but lovably so: she muses about the mysterious stains that inevitably appear on her panties on a daily basis, and almost proudly recounts a catastrophic visit to the women’s restroom earlier that day. In another performer’s hands this routine could have been unbearably self-indulgent, but Slate’s sharp, likeable performance reveals the human undercurrent beneath such attention-grabbing frankness (as it does throughout the entire film). By the end of Donna’s act, you find yourself unwittingly charmed by this admittedly juvenile, insecure artist turning her life into performance art. Like many great comedians (from Richard Pryor to Louis C.K.), Donna uses comedy as a way to distance herself from the pain and discomfort of her life—though, as a privileged twenty-something still funded partly by her parents, such pain and discomfort isn’t exactly overwhelming at the movie’s start.
One audience member who doesn’t appreciate Donna’s sincerity is her priggish boyfriend, Ryan—who, immediately after her set, takes the opportunity to criticize her selfishness and admits he’s been sleeping with her best friend. So far the film is charting the predictable storyline of any indie rom-com, but this is actually a marvelous (and unexpectedly powerful) scene: in the tiny unisex bathroom, as Donna is literally surrounded by indifferent men and women, her worst fears—loneliness, betrayal, her art turned against her—are brought into the open and claustrophobically flung at her. Donna breaks down into tears as her boyfriend leaves; there’s a tender vulnerability here that further evokes Donna as a real, easily-wounded, identifiable human character.
Donna’s heartache over Ryan culminates in a disastrous stand-up performance: incoherently smashed, she unleashes alcohol-fueled vitriol at the audience, claiming she wants to “murder-suicide” her ex. Thankfully, though, a nice, straitlaced Christian boy named Max (Jake Lacy) arrives late for her act, running into her at the bar as she spills one of many whiskeys on his starched, businesslike shirt. It’s a lame meet-cute, but I actually enjoyed how little narrative drive the movie supplies for their encounter: in real life, most hookups stem not from overly-plotted predicaments but from awkwardly hitting on somebody at a bar. There’s an instant attraction—genuine on Max’s part, driven partially by booze and insecurity for Donna—as they return to Donna’s apartment, dance drunkenly to Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child” (a not-so-subtle case of foreshadowing), and enjoy what they think is a one-night stand. The film admirably elides the specifics of their sexual encounter (at least for now), emphasizing the sweetly flirtatious buildup instead.
But things are going too well for Donna at this early point in the film, and soon the dramatic conflict inevitably arises: several weeks later, Donna discovers that she’s pregnant. Her friend Nellie (well-played by Gaby Hoffman, who acts circles around her character’s outspoken-feminist stereotype) consoles her in a dressing room as Donna’s hazy memories come back to her. “I remember seeing a condom, I just don’t know, like, what it did,” she says. (A flashback reveals that said condom was worn during an intense thumb-wrestling bout.) There’s an amusing scene in which Donna, ignoring Nellie’s sage advice, instead listens to an alter-ego voice in her head, chastising her immaturity, as the sixty seconds of the pregnancy test wind down; an internal dialogue taking precedence on the soundtrack is hardly an original aesthetic device, but once again Slate’s warm performance and Gillian Robespierre’s deft writing make such moments seem anything but stale.
Nellie and their amused gay friend Joey (Gabe Liedman) counsel Donna how to respond: she suggests an abortion as soon as possible and claims that there’s no reason Max should know; Joey, having met Max on their initial night of soused romance, thinks she should tell him and come to a decision together. Meanwhile, an obviously smitten Max repeatedly tries to approach a standoffish Donna, as she comes to realize there might be a future with this sweet, understanding Christian boy (with child or not). There are repeated wry allusions to the characters’ different religious faiths, as when Donna says she’ll be the “Menorah on top of the Christmas tree that burns it down”; but the movie wisely avoids making this another conflict for them to overcome.
Many of these figures sound like clichéd characters, playing their predictable roles in supporting our protagonist on her road to happiness and self-fulfillment. But what's amazing about Obvious Child is how it constantly seems to court predictability only to achieve something bracingly new. The movie’s overall approach towards its characters and dramatic content is refreshingly modest: this is simply a turbulent episode of life, not the first and definitely not the last, which the characters (Donna especially) deal with in a flawed and human way.
This perceived lack of dramatic intensity has been criticized by some reviewers. Sound on Sight, for example, claims that "each scene takes a relaxed, conversational tone, as if we're eavesdropping on two old friends chatting in a restaurant, and that Donna has a "complete lack of direction or motivation." Well, yeah—sound like anyone you know? The majority of life's problems happen to people without earth-shattering goals, among friends and family who provide supportive conversation and a listening ear. I was, in fact, dreading an overly dramatic, heavily scripted abortion drama in which everything is either dramatically or comically exaggerated; the fact that Obvious Child is more naturalistic and humane than such a hypothetical hot-button comedy should be cherished.
And yes, that low-key, conversational tone happens to address abortion—though labeling Obvious Child an “abortion comedy” (as some critics and even the movie’s promotional campaign have done) seems insensitive and off-base. Like many women who make such a difficult decision, Donna has her doubts and concerns about the procedure, but she has no doubt that it’s the correct thing for her to do at this point in her life. There are a few moments when Donna’s impending abortion make for dark comedy: at one point, Nellie assures her before going on stage, “You’re going to kill it out there,” after which Donna replies, “No, I’m doing that tomorrow.” (They both cringe uncomfortably after the joke—the way actual people might if trying to lighten such a tense situation.) And at times the movie’s pro-choice, feminist stance is made explicit, as when Nellie decries a political situation in which old robed men make decisions about women’s reproduction (she uses considerably harsher language in her diatribe) or when Donna’s mother recounts when she got an illegal abortion in a stranger’s apartment in the 1970s. For the most part, though, Obvious Child is a sympathetic and subtle treatment of something many people decide to do for a litany of reasons. The non-politicized, character-driven representation of abortion in Obvious Child is commendable—it reminds us of the human element at the heart of this controversial subject.
The film’s finest scene occurs when Donna finally reveals to Max that she is pregnant and that she’s decided to have an abortion. This is understandably something she’s had difficulty admitting to him—she plans to do so at a pleasant lunch date, but is disarmed when he heartbreakingly professes how much he looks forward to being a grandfather. She finally reveals the truth during one of her stand-up acts, with Max standing thunderstruck in the back of the room. Notably, this is a situation in which Donna has all the power: alone on stage with a microphone, when she feels simultaneously her most authoritative and vulnerable, she is allowed to manifest her admission however she wants—as art, as confession, as one-person play. Yet the movie has sympathy for Max as well, who wordlessly leaves Donna’s performance before she finishes. The film’s sincere yet comedic approach is perfectly exemplified in this scene, as humor is revealed as both a buffer to distance the harsh reality of the world and an emotional connection to finally grapple with it.
Obvious Child began as a short film released in 2009, which writer-director Gillian Robespierre expanded to feature-length (with some funds provided by Kickstarter campaigns). In her first feature, Robespierre hasn’t quite developed the audacity to present these themes in stylistically interesting ways, though at least the on-location shooting on the streets of New York reveal the dynamic, multifaceted nature of the city. Even despite its straightforward aesthetic, though, Robespierre should be credited for imbuing Obvious Child with a warmth and understanding uncommon for any film, much less a Brooklyn-set “abortion comedy.”
More striking than the film’s potentially divisive subject matter and treatment (obviously this film will not be applauded by right-wing Republicans any time soon) is Obvious Child’s tremendous sympathy for its characters. The marvelous cast is largely responsible for this, including Jenny Slate, who should receive a tidal wave of recognition (and roles) after her performance here; as are Robespierre’s co-writers, who know how to write dialogue balanced between irreverence and sincerity. Ultimately, though, Obvious Child left me eagerly excited to see what Robespierre will do next. It’s a sad fact that the numerous hot-button topics plaguing modern American society—not only reproductive rights but gun control, corporate oligarchy, economic inequality, racism, xenophobia, and so on—are often dealt with hysterically and politically, as red-or-blue talking points rather than as real human affairs that inevitably affect people’s lives. With Obvious Child, Robespierre retrieves abortion from the realm of political debate and reminds us of the people involved, all while somehow creating an enormously satisfying romantic comedy. It’s an incredibly impressive balancing act—the kind of thing that American cinema could use more of.