Abortion may not be the exact opposite of comedy or romance, but it’s still a pretty effective mood-killer for both. There’s nothing like the reminder of such an unfun possible outcome of sex to put a damper on both attraction and any humor that isn’t incredibly dark.
It’s also still such a hot-button, divisive issue that most mainstream movies pretend it doesn’t exist as an option or gingerly sidestep around it. Consider Knocked Up’s “rhymes with shmashmortion,” which was both an acknowledgement of the way abortion tends to be discussed in whispers and euphemisms and part of some furious skating around the issue itself. Even HBO’s Girls, a show defined by its bold willingness to go places others won’t (especially when it comes to women’s issues), had one of its characters schedule an abortion, then let her off the hook from having to actually go through with it.
And that’s why the new movie Obvious Child, which hits theaters in New York and L.A. this Friday and will expand to more cities from there, deserves a universal round of applause for the fact that it’s not just a movie in which abortion is openly discussed, it’s one in which there’s never a question of whether or not its main character, a Brooklyn comedian named Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), is going to get one. Recently dumped, soon-to-be unemployed, and pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a stranger, Donna’s nowhere near ready to be a mom. For her, abortion is not just an option; it’s the best one.
What Donna may be ready for, however, is a healthy relationship, after getting tossed aside by a passive-aggressive boyfriend who didn’t like the frankness of her stand-up and who was sleeping with one of her friends anyway. The tricky part is that Mr. Right — Max (Jake Lacy), the gentlemanly, slightly square guy she hooked up with, who works with computers and wears slip-ons and is nothing like the Brooklyn creatives she spends most of her time around — is also Mr. Awkward Timing. She resists his attentions for that reason — that and the not-so-minor fact that she is, for the moment, carrying his child — but as he wins her over, she starts to feel like she needs to tell him about her plans.
The sense of responsibility that Obvious Child has toward the procedure it’s depicting occasionally makes it feel like an indie film PSA, as when Donna’s mom (Polly Draper) confesses to her daughter that she once had an abortion herself, or when the camera follows Donna right into the examining room and holds on her anesthetic-addled face. But as discordant as some of these moments can be, their point remains resonant. This isn’t something we talk about, much less show happening on camera, but an unintended pregnancy is something plenty of women have to deal with, and not all of them have the options Donna does. You won’t find euphemisms here.
Obvious Child, which is the directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, is a celebration of oversharing, abortion-related or not. On stage, Donna talks fearlessly about bodily functions (“I used to hide what my vagina does to my underpants”), her past relationship, and whether she looks like Anne Frank. Sometimes, she bombs, but she’s never anything but honest. Adding to that sense of candor is the way Donna feels like she could be an alternate universe version of Slate, a comedian and actress who co-created Marcel the Shell With Shoes on and who moved to L.A. to foster her budding television career after a yearlong stint on Saturday Night Live. (Slate’s real-life best friend Gabe Liedman, with whom she used to co-host a free Williamsburg stand-up show, essentially plays himself in the film.)
Donna’s not always as forthright with herself as she is with her audience — she still has a lot of growing up to do — though she’s delightfully without filter. Max, who’s totally charmed by this, repeats back to her that she told him she’d “mouthfuck the shit out of a burrito” when he first asks her out. But her tendency to blurt out whatever’s on her mind doesn’t mean she’s any less insecure or afraid of judgment than someone who keeps everything inside.
The conversations Donna has with her divorced parents (Richard Kind plays her father), her friends (including a terrific Gaby Hoffmann as the supportive Nellie), and sleazy fellow comic Sam (David Cross) demonstrate just how much honesty doesn’t automatically equal maturity or direction. Donna’s brazenness has existed in the context of her North Brooklyn comfort zone, and taken out of it by what’s happened and by the ways in which Max is wearing down her defenses, she’s terrified — which makes the openness she and the movie stick with all the more compelling.
The romantic comedy as a movie genre has been hurting of late (even Katherine Heigl’s fled for TV), but Obvious Child is proof there’s so much more to be done in putting realistic women on screen, who have to deal with more than meet-cutes and secrets pacts. Hell, this is a movie about abortion — if it can manage to be funny and sweet, then anything’s on the table.
(And yes, the movie contains a scene featuring that Paul Simon song, and it’s great.)
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