Regardless of what one thinks about abortion, it cannot be denied that it is a common medical procedure for women. Roughly 30 percent of American women will obtain one. And yet, as Slate’s Dana Stevens has observed, abortion has virtually disappeared as a subject from popular American film and television. Dramas featuring young women routinely use convenient miscarriages as plot devices to avoid having characters make realistic choices, while movies like Knocked Up and Juno follow all the hoops their main characters go through to make sure an unplanned pregnancy comes to fruition.
In this context, Gillian Robespierre’s new movie Obvious Child is welcome indeed.
The romantic comedy stars the gifted comic actor Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, a young comedian and employee in a failing bookstore. The movie begins with Slate performing her comedy routine, after which she is dumped (in a superbly written and acted scene) by her boyfriend in the dive club’s unisex, graffiti-saturated bathroom. Eking out a threadbare existence, she decides to obtain an abortion after an unintended pregnancy.
Her decision is presented in a smart and refreshingly nonjudgmental manner. Robespierre, who is also the primary screenwriter of her directorial debut, makes the wise choice of not turning Donna’s pregnancy into some kind of special case that might justify abortion to people who are wishy-washy on the issue. Donna is not sexually assaulted. She doesn’t have a fetus with a defect. There was no broken condom.
Instead, the pregnancy results from a casual encounter — indeed, what appears at the time to be a one-night stand. Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy) after a show, and the couple fails to use contraception — a nondecision explained in a funny, nearly surreal flashback sequence — during a drunken hookup. The message is clear: Women should be able to experiment sexually without having to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
While it’s salutary to have a wide-distribution American movie take on abortion in a courageous and intelligent way, that’s not enough in and of itself. As anyone with the misfortune to have seen Aaron Sorkin’s HBO Series The Newsroom is well aware, good politics and good art have no necessary relationship. A good message is worth little if it’s not attached to a good film, and the desire to make political points all too often get in the way of an artist’s virtues.
Fortunately, Robespierre understands this. Her script is consistently funny, and portrays the ambivalence and awkwardness of early-stage relationships with winning candor. The actors deliver as well. Nobody who has seen Slate’s scene-stealing turn as the outrageously self-absorbed Mona Lisa on Parks and Recreation or her underrated year on Saturday Night Live will be surprised that she makes the most of her starring role. There are several good performances in supporting roles as well, most notably Gaby Hoffman as Donna’s wearily supportive roommate Nellie and David Cross as a creepily manipulative comedian with a long-standing unrequited crush on Donna.
Most importantly, the movie is blessedly free of Sorkin-style didacticism. (The one sort-of exception — Nellie’s amusingly short, vulgar critique of conservative men on the Supreme Court who oppose abortion rights — feels like something the character would say.) Robespierre doesn’t hide her views on abortion, but they’re dramatized; she doesn’t communicate by lecturing at the audience or by having characters exchange rote pro-and-con debating points. Donna doesn’t discuss abortion policy — she makes a choice that makes sense for her character.
Some people will be put off by the movie's reliance on the kind of gross-out body humor that has become increasingly frequent in a film comedy landscape dominated by Judd Apatow and his protégées. A very little of it goes a long way for me, too. (It should be noted that Apatow, the director of Knocked Up, has strongly praised Obvious Child.) But in this context, it makes more sense than usual. The film is, above all, about bodies — both the disturbing and the pleasurable things about them.
And by the latter, I don’t just mean sex. Donna’s awkwardly seductive, unselfconscious dance to the Paul Simon should-be-classic that lends the film its title is one of the film’s most seductive images. Abortion is properly seen as part of this lived reality.
Abortion, and its availability (or lack thereof) is a major part of the lives of many women. It’s about time that a contemporary comedy dealt with the issue honestly and straightforwardly, and it’s even better that the movie is so richly entertaining.