Obvious Child is being billed as the abortion rom-com of the year. It is a romantic comedy centering on an abortion, but that tag is far too reductive. Obvious Child plays like a rom-com in reverse, with the final scene functioning as one of the most adorable “meet cutes” I have seen in a long time. A reminder that real life does not follow the typical plot point, three-act structure we hope for. Godard once said that, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” Such is life.
Donna (Jenny Slate) likes to revel in her grossness. She is a struggling stand-up comedian who opens her show with a very intricate description of “panty gunk” and female flatulence, topics that she seems to find more humor in than her audience. If there was a scene that explained why she prefers this approach, I missed it, but I suspect she uses it as a defense mechanism. There is another aspect and it might be of a meta nature. Obvious Child revolves around Donna’s decision to abort an unwanted pregnancy, but the movie does not pause to discus this hot-button issue the way one might expect. Donna’s stand-up early on in the movie is a method of weeding out the weak and preparing the rest for what’s to come.
When Donna isn’t doing stand-up, she works (or worked) at the Un-Oppressive, Non-Imperialist Bargain Books store—which would be a ridiculous concoction if it weren’t a real place. The store closes up shop and Donna has to find a way to pay the bills. To make matters worse, her boyfriend dumps her for the neighbor and Donna does not handle it well. She drowns her sorrows in copious amounts of wine and one night of sloppy, drunken sex with Max (Jake Lacy). They fail to use protection properly and Donna becomes pregnant. Crises never have the best timing, that’s why they call them crises. Donna resolves to terminate the pregnancy, but Max shows back up. He likes her, and dammit all if she doesn’t like him!
Obvious Child is one of the few rom-coms that pass the Bechdel Test, a study created by cartoonist Alice Bechdel to see if two female characters are able to have a conversation without men present and discuss something other than a man. Even though men (both gay and straight) factor in this story, Obvious Child is not about them. Nor is Obvious Child about Donna’s body, her choice to have an abortion or the legislative power of her uterus. Obvious Child is about a lost little girl trying to make her way in the world. The rest is just dressing.
Credit goes to writer/director Gillian Robespierre, who expands her 2009 short of the same name into a very capable feature debut. What is surprising is how well Slate embodies Donna, even though she is not one of the credited screenwriters. Her performance is so natural and the subject matter is so simple and honest that it comes off autobiographical. It all makes for a good story, and Obvious Child is a well-told story, though it lacks in the cinematic department. Robespierre films her actors in a very traditional manner, not that there is much need for invention her, but it wouldn’t have hurt.
Even without a unique aesthetic, Obvious Child is elevated from the usual good efforts thanks to two scenes: Donna reveal of the pregnancy to Max & the abortion sequence. The first happens on the stage where Donna performs her stand-up. There, she bares herself, warts and all for everyone in the room, including Max. If cinema is where a director goes to excises their demons, then the microphone is comedian’s couch. This moment stuck with me and it reminded me of Tig Notaro, a comedian who revealed her struggle with cancer treatments and other personal difficulties in her 2012 stand-up. The level of bravery needed to bare one’s soul in this manner is beyond words.
The other sequence, the abortion, is touching in its execution. Robespierre doesn’t go for shock, opting instead for a documentary like frankness. After the surgery Donna sits woozy in a recovery room with other women, all of them waiting for the anesthesia to wear off. They look to one another and nod, a slight smile, reassuring.
Obvious Child and 2013’s In a World… were both written and directed by women, starred women, and addressed women’s issues (In A World… focused on the struggle of a woman in a profession completely dominated by men). Yet, neither feels like propaganda nor do they tout an agenda. Their strength lies in their ability to present female struggles realistically and casually with the usual humor that would accompany a male themed picture. We don’t watch Obvious Child because we learn what it’s like for a woman to go through an abortion, we watch because it’s fun and Slate is a captivating performer. Truth just happens to be revealed and I learned something along the way.