Director: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper
‘Abortion comedy’ is hardly a phrase that rolls off the tongue, ‘abortion romantic comedy’ even less so. It sounds like an oxymoron, or at least in questionable taste. But that is exactly what we get with Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, a brave debut feature unafraid to look honestly at this most divisive of issues.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a very frank, small-time stand up comedienne. Her material is highly confessional, consisting mainly of sharing her life experiences with her audience, with a generous smattering of bodily functions jokes. She has the rug pulled out from under her when her boyfriend breaks up with her, at least in part due to his discomfort with the details of their relationship being shared so openly with her audience. As part of her meltdown, she has a drunken one-night stand with a clean-cut business student, Max (Jake Lacy), and a couple of weeks later discovers, to her horror, that she is pregnant.
So far, this is nothing really new. We have seen all of this before. It is what comes next that is the game changer. Donna very matter-of-factly decides that she will terminate the pregnancy. She is not ready to be a mother and the situation is far from ideal. The doctor informs her she must wait a fortnight before the procedure can be done. So she has two weeks of thinking this over and counting down, in which time she keeps bumping into Max, often in pretty contrived circumstances. He seems interested in pursuing a relationship. Can she bring herself to tell him what has happened and what she is planning? Will she go through with it?
The thing about independent film, and the reason it will always be important, is its freedom and willingness to go places mainstream films can’t or won’t. With its blunt and honest look at abortion – an option that is significantly more common than Hollywood accidental pregnancy movies would have you believe – Obvious Child finds comedy in places other films dare not look. It is a stark contrast to Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit, Knocked Up, which couldn’t even bring itself to say the word – preferring “shma-shmortion” – let alone consider it a serious option. While there are no doubt moments of gallows humour in Obvious Child’s approach, these are always balanced with incredibly vulnerability. Donna makes her decision quickly, but does not make it lightly. Preparing herself for this event, and processing her emotional response to it, pave the way for some surprising and heartfelt discussions between characters, none more so than when she finally works up to courage to discuss her situation with her usually disapproving mother (Polly Draper).
Obvious Child is female-driven film – unfortunately rare in comedies – and delivers an undoubtedly female perspective. With a strong female protagonist, directed and written by Gillian Robespierre, and with three other women (Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm and Anna Bean) receiving story credits, the film employs a style of comedy which has traditionally been the domain of male characters, and uses it to great effect.
It is a real breakout performance from Jenny Slate, a former Saturday Night Live cast member best known for her roles in Parks and Recreation and The Kroll Show. While her comedic abilities were never in doubt, what is oh so impressive is the way Slate captures Donna’s vulnerability, going beyond the cliché of the funny person who uses humour as a defence mechanism. She makes Donna a real person, showing the isolation and loneliness of someone in her position.
Obvious Child was never going to be a mainstream success. Abortion is just too divisive an issue. But Robespierre delivers a funny film which avoids being preachy or didactic. Its agenda, if it has one, is not to try and convince viewers to come down on one side of the debate, but simply to acknowledge that abortion is a part of life and as such should be open for exploration.
Review by Duncan McLean
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