Obvious Child is directed by Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffmann.
Whenever Hollywood takes on the controversial topic of unplanned pregnancy (as in the memorable examples of Knocked Up and Juno) it seems to come right up to the precipice of abortion and then slowly back away. It is clear from the opening scene of Obvious Child that writer and director Gillian Robespierre has the courage to take the leap and let things fall where they may. The film opens with Donna Stern (played by comedian Jenny Slate) performing a bit from her standup act where she discusses her sex life with her boyfriend, farting and the state of her underwear; Robespierre’s unapologetically edgy movie is not for those who offend easily. Barely treading water in life, Donna is a Jewish twenty-something anti-hero living in Brooklyn; she makes fun of her ethnic features, stalks her ex-boyfriend and tramples over any suggestion of lady-like decorum.
Taking its title from the Paul Simon song, Obvious Child follows the life of Donna as it goes from mediocre to miserable. After experiencing a string of misfortunes (she’s dumped by her boyfriend, the dusty old progressive bookstore where she works unexpectedly closes), Donna gets drunk and ends up spending the night with her complete opposite. Max (Jake Lacey) is a business student who is gentle, quiet and the embodiment of all-American good looks and charm. Three weeks later, her best friend comforts Donna as she comes to grips with the realisation that she is in fact pregnant.
Reflecting on her scattered life, Donna immediately considers abortion. It is here that Hollywood usually backs away, as in the scene in Juno where she leaves the abortion clinic fixated on fetal fingernails. It is no surprise Hollywood is uneasy, since Gallup Polls reveal an America where 50% say abortion should be legal, but 51% also report they believe it is “morally wrong;” it’s no understatement to say we are conflicted on this subject.
Donna struggles with the idea of an abortion, not so much because she questions the morality of it, but rather because she worries about how well it will be accepted by the people in her life and how she will pay for it. Hollywood has been criticised for the paucity of films by women, and this movie might be proof of why it matters. Written and directed by a woman, the practical concerns Donna grapples with offer a realistic female viewpoint on the concrete experience of an unplanned pregnancy – the financial and interpersonal impact it will have in her life – concerns that male writers and directors might not consider.
The movie provides a political commentary as Donna nervously tells her mother (Polly Draper) that she’s pregnant, fearing her mother’s disappointment. Her mother not only dismisses that idea, but tells Donna about her own (illegal) abortion in the 1960s. She describes it secretly taking place in an apartment in New Jersey, with twelve women waiting their turn, while sedated on a kitchen table. Robespierre doesn’t shy away from depicting Donna’s own abortion. While the doctor explains the procedure, the camera stays on Donna’s face as a few tears silently fall. The audience is invited to juxtapose Donna’s and her mother’s experiences: while not ideal, Donna’s abortion takes place in a clean medical clinic and a comparison of the two experiences subtly suggests that we don’t want to go back to the era of her mother’s abortion, either politically or socially.
The place where the film falters and loses its edge is in the character of Max. Because the character is so underdeveloped, Max’s perspective and motivations largely remain a mystery, and the movie misses the opportunity to add more depth and complexity to the story. Instead, Robespierre can’t resist the romantic comedy formula. Despite being a stranger, an idealised Maxz says and does all the right things as Donna approaches getting her abortion.
Obvious Child is nevertheless a provocative contribution to the dialogue about abortion because it has the courage to depict it somewhat ordinarily. Robespierre presents two female characters besides Donna describing their own experiences with the clear message, as Donna’s friend puts it, “I never regretted it.” Considering one in three American women have had an abortion but many likely hide it for fear of social disapproval, Robespierre does her part to bring this reality out of the shadows. Any discussion about the morality and practical necessity of abortion should begin with full disclosure about how common it actually is.