As suggested in this excellent summation of Hollywood’s dubious history with abortion, Obvious Child is not the revolutionary harbinger of pro-choice cinema. In fact, it is a movie with relatively modest ambitions, functioning primarily as a vehicle to showcase star Jenny Slate’s powerful comedic and emotive gifts. It’s legacy however will be how it contextualizes abortion for what it is: a normal medical procedure that a third of all women undergo.
Thankfully, Obvious Child takes this rather dour subject matter and filters it through the lens of comedy, balancing moments of extreme pathos with a glorious barrage of jokes about poop, vaginas and getting “banged out.” Of course, not everything about the film is played for laughs. In her breakthrough film director/writer Gillian Robespierre displays an almost preternatural ability to balance tone, while at the same time eliciting great performances from her entire cast.
In Obvious Child, Slate plays Donna, a young New York stand-up comic still struggling to imbue her life with stability. The film opens with Donna being dumped by her longtime boyfriend – a loathsome schlub named Ryan – which sends the comic into a tailspin. After several nights of binge drinking and totally blowing it on stage, Donna runs across Max (Jake Lacy), an affable enough hunk who is able to keep up with her comedic shtick. Several drinks and some drunken, elbowy sex later, Donna realizes (much to her chagrin) that she has been impregnated by someone who is basically a total stranger – a fact which further damages her already fragile self-worth.
Although marketed strongly as an “abortion film,” Robespierre’s Obvious Child never devolves into some sort of sociological examination of the subject following the sex scene. The filmmakers frame the issue of abortion as a construct to ask more pertinent questions about her heroine’s character. Thankfully, this allows the story to become much more emotionally evolving, as the film’s script zeros in on Donna’s anxious psyche. What’s clear is that the woman is as much concerned with her current economic and personal lives as she is with her reproductive status.
It’s also clear that Robespierre found the ideal collaborator in Slate to bring this character to life, as the actress’s lead performance is both hilarious and deeply affecting. Oscillating between rapid-fire quips and remarkable vulnerability in the blink of an eye, Slate turns Donna into someone who feels immensely relatable. The general nervousness, the self-deprecating wit, and the propensity for self-recrimination produces a vibrant portrait of someone yearning for a socially-approved version of adulthood.
While on the surface Obvious Child may seem like a retread of Girls, or the recent films of Noah Baumbach, one can rest easy that the story and characters are far more likable. There is certainly a faint whiff of East Coast elitism in certain scenes, such as moments shared between Donna and her divorced parents (played gamely by Richard Kind and Polly Draper). But for the most part the boundless egomania which defined those other works is absent here, supplanted by genuine emotion. This authentic feeling is conveyed through the excellent performances of all the primary cast members, particularly Gaby Hoffman (who plays Donna’s best friend Nellie) and Jeff Lacy.
And yet, to return to Obvious Child’s most “obvious” feature, the way that the filmmakers broach abortion is particularly notable. While other similarly-themed films usurp their female characters’ sexual experience by a fixation on the pregnant body (Juno), or contextualize the issue in some sort of rancorous historical period (Vera Drake, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), Obvious Child refreshingly presents abortion (and unplanned pregnancy by extension) as just one part of a more complex whole. This direction is reinforced by Robespierre’s shrewd directorial decisions, which effectively establish Slate’s Donna as the films salient subject (particularly during the story’s moment of truth). These aesthetic choices are pointed and powerful, suggesting that it is the women afflicted by unplanned pregnancies that should trump the procedure in terms of importance. Additionally, they insinuate that perhaps the best way to add something to the conversation on abortion is to say almost nothing at all.