There is this brief scene – among many others – in Gillian Robespierre’s directorial debut Obvious Child that I really love. Our protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) is preparing to go on stage for a stand-up comedy performance, the night before she is scheduled to have an abortion. Her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) approaches her and confidently asserts to her, “You are going to kill it out there.” To which Donna replies, “I’m actually going to do that tomorrow.” Thus encapsulates what is perhaps the general mood of this that has been repeatedly hailed as an “abortion comedy”. Sure, this joke is a morbid one; yet within the context of the plain absurdity in which Donna finds herself, it highlights the simple silliness of reality itself – in all its curveballs small and large – and the complex people that inhabit it. While this film surprised me by not being as light-hearted as I initially expected, it still possessed its fair share of dark humor that reminded us that not everything can – nor should – be discussed in complete solemn seriousness. For many, it’s the one thing that keeps life from entering a dreadful, unwanted standstill and keeps it moving forward.
And from the get-go, we see that this is certainly the case with Donna. The flick opens up with a stand-up routine from Donna, who explicitly jests about farting, her vagina, and her sex life. While these certain types of low-brow humor isn’t really my favorite (as I’ve made clear in my This is the End review), I’m still a huge fan of humorous ladies assuming such types of humor often written and performed by men (who are often deemed successful and “funny” by doing so). While I can’t wait for the day that women will be able to be universally accepted as funny without resorting to such often contrived types of comedy, I am completely for it in the meantime. Especially those with the magnetism, charm, and overall nonchalant-yet-perky demeanor that Slate so perfectly possesses through the entirety of the film. Shortly thereafter, however, the first major stumble of Donna’s plot is revealed: her boyfriend confesses that he’s been having an affair with her best friend and, thus, leaves her. Some time later, she finds out that the bookshop she works at is going out of business – which will eliminate her sole source of reliable income.
And thus initiates this delve into what is, in many ways, a rather typical rom-com. We’ve all seen it before: a protagonist thrown into a sticky situation outside of their control, who then seek refuge in a person or thing (usually a romantic interest), which only works to make things more complicated. In Donna’s case, it is a post-alcohol-binge one-night stand she has with a man named Max (Jake Lacy), whom she meets at a bar. She finds out later that this has resulted in an unwanted pregnancy; her current state in her own life leads her to immediately decide upon getting an abortion.
And this is where I feel that this “comedy” proves itself refreshing against the backdrop of many other similarly-structured films. In what I’ve previously read, Knocked Up and Juno are often contrasted as antitheses to the narrative progression that this film decides to take. With the former film, abortion is never so much as mentioned as a potential solution for the conflict of a completely unwanted pregnancy. This works to further perpetuate such a mainstream ideal which, by extension, diminishes the amount of acceptable agency a woman is expected to have over her own body. While the option of abortion is mentioned in Juno, however, the choice that the titular character makes against the procedure has often been misinterpreted by pro-lifers as an anti-abortion statement. This is reinforced by the overall drab, suppressive atmosphere that the minor scene inside the clinic itself presents – a scene that has always annoyed me, despite how cute I find most of the movie.
Obvious Child, however, strays from this common tendency for these movies to shy away from this undoubtedly touchy subject. When the nurse reveals to Donna that she is indeed pregnant, Donna’s initial reaction is of shock and dismay, followed by the humorous request, “I would like an abortion, please”. While the casual delivery of such a statement is meant to be played off for laughs over its sheer irony, there is also a sense of assuredness that this is simply what needs to be done. Behind this veneer of jokes surrounding the issue is the deep-seated realization from Donna that, whether she likes it or not, she is nowhere near a comfortable situation that wouldn’t only be further complicated with the presence of a baby. She is in an aimless predicament that may or may not be momentary, and the last thing she wants and needs is to unpreparedly bring a child into the world.
Thus, the film moves forward by avoiding the dreariness and trauma that pro-life propaganda insists is inherent to the topic of abortion. Instead, the narrative consists of numerous coincidental run-ins Donna has with Max, and her inner conflict over whether, when, and how she should tell him about her decision. As it progresses, the film continues to play by conventions of romantic comedies that we’ve all seen before: quirky coincidences, dialogues punctuated by sparse one-liners, music montages, brief fluctuations into melodrama… the works. Thus, there are a few anachronisms of the movie that simply do not work very well; the inclusion of David Cross’s character and a “gay sidekick” caricature played by Gabe Liedman being particularly glaring annoyances. However, whenever the film chooses to go against the grain, it excels and the results are absolutely wonderful. A recent praise I’ve heard from an individual who just came out of the film was that it “avoided a political agenda” when concerning the issue at hand. While I can certainly see how that is so, it also doesn’t completely sidestep the topic as an issue on a social level. This can be seen in numerous interactions Donna has with the women in her life who have had abortions in the past, including Nellie and her own mother. As someone who is extremely sick of rom-coms that put women in competition with each other (usually over a man), I find these moments of female solidarity extremely important, especially when concerning topics that almost exclusively affect women.
A common backlash I’ve read toward this film is its working as some sort of implicit, subversive propaganda toward “[normalizing] abortion as a part of everyday life”. This is absolute bullshit. Especially when Hollywood puts out loads of films that feature unplanned pregnancies and absolutely no discussion of abortion as a viable option – receiving minimal to no backlash against this tendency. This is not to say that the option of abortion should come up in each and every discussion on pregnancy, but rather that the portrayal of strong female protagonists who unflinchingly follow through with the procedure should not be shamed and should certainly not be erased from the fabric of existence.
Through each and every step of the way, Donna and pals discuss her upcoming abortion with an explicit, infectious sense of humor vital to their characters and personalities. Does this make her a heartless monster who desires little more than to murder helpless, defenseless babies? Absolutely not. If taken in context of the little viable opportunity that stands before her, the number of options possessed are minimal and none are exactly “desired”. In the brief scene of the abortion itself (which, by the way, was terrifically filmed in a short, minimalistic, non-suppressive way that not many other films really succeed at), we see tears running down her face as she’s heavily sedated. Later on, she sits in a recovery room full of other women who are post-procedure, sharing a smile with a teenage girl sitting near her. The film ends with Donna and Max relaxing on a couch with tea and Gone With the Wind.
So, as it’s made clear, the film is certainly not set on “normalizing abortion”; rather, it acknowledges that such choices made by real women do exist and they should be free from unfair shaming and blaming that already saturates its discourse. The film succeeds at not only recognizing the importance of female solidarity in an environment ruled by patriarchal standards of agency, but does so through humor, enforcing its vitality in making such potentially-tough circumstances at least somewhat maintainable. To classify Obvious Child as an “abortion comedy” seems far too simplistic, as it more appropriately outlines and expresses the absurd eccentricities that life has to offer, through the a rather specific portrayal of a fiercely marginalized issue. While it does possess the typical setbacks found in many a debut feature film, such a strong start for Robespierre only makes me greatly anticipate what she’s got up her sleeve in the future.