“Obvious Child” makes romantic comedy out of controversial subject matter

June 27, 2014, 9:25 p.m.
Courtesy of A24 Films.
Courtesy of A24 Films.

Much of “Obvious Child” is well-trodden ground for a romantic comedy: it is, in short, the story of a twenty-something woman looking for love, mostly in vain. Donna (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring comedian, whose boyfriend dumps her for airing their dirty laundry (namely, her underwear) on stage. She loses her day job at the bookstore Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books and, after a drunken one-night stand, finds herself pregnant. What makes “Obvious Child” memorable, however, is its unapologetic portrayal of Donna’s abortion, which becomes the backbone for the movie’s plot and her budding romance with a Max (Jake Lacy), an earnest business school student.

Both hailed and derided as an “abortion comedy,” “Obvious Child” is disappointing because it is only an “abortion comedy.” Whatever chutzpah writer and director Gillian Robespierre summoned to take on political controversy did not translate into stylistic bravery. Instead, the film seems to cling to a progressive political argument because its story is otherwise unremarkable.

Donna’s downward spiral involves a series of unredeemable clichés. We watch her drinking wine in her pajamas and leaving a slew of regrettable messages on her ex’s answering machine. Donna’s loyal girlfriend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and gay colleague Joey (Gabe Liedman) try to help her back on her feet but are not developed as characters in their own right. Donna’s parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) are also familiar tropes, recently divorced and polar opposites.

Slate’s performance, on the other hand, brings Donna to life. Slate is herself a stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member, and she shows remarkable versatility in the role, capturing Donna’s panicked se

lf-loathing and, at times, heavy sadness. Unlike “Frances Ha,” which also tells the story of a young, female Brooklynite flailing through her early adulthood, “Obvious Child” invests in a protagonist who cannot always be described as “cute” or conventionally desirable. Donna is too three-dimensional — too loveably vulgar, snarky, and bold — to conform to gendered expectations or fall into the “manic pixie dream girl” trope.

Courtesy of A24 Films.
Courtesy of A24 Films.

Donna may be a believable personality, but her love interest, Max, is comparatively dull. A polished Vermont prepster, Max is little more than a “good guy,” who wears loafers to a bar and steadily pursues Donna, despite the terms of their meet-cute. He first learns about Donna’s abortion through one of her comedy routines, but he still shows up with flowers to accompany her to Planned Parenthood. He seems, in other words, a bit unreal.

What is innovative about this movie is that Donna doesn’t hesitate about her choice to have an abortion. This isn’t a movie like “Knocked Up” or “Juno”, where female protagonists weigh abortion against its alternatives and, conveniently, elect to carry their babies to term. Instead, Donna goes to Planned Parenthood with her mind already made up — her only reservations are to do with telling Max. In some ways, all this is understandable, as the film’s protagonist is an “obvious child” herself, who sleeps on her father’s couch and casually stalks her ex-boyfriend.

At the same time, “Obvious Child” might have been more than a predictable romantic comedy aspiring to make a political statement. It could have been a story about the costs of making one’s life the subject of comedy and the relationships that crack (or thrive) under that pressure. It might have started an honest conversation about the human body, especially the female body, and the awkward-beautiful way that any sexual relationship reveals its idiosyncrasies. But instead the film settled for shallowness, even in its handling of Donna’s abortion. There were moments when I wanted Robespierre to do more to register the gravity of Donna’s choice. Her on-stage discussion of the choice, for instance, seemed a missed opportunity to acknowledge the ethical ambiguities and emotional stress of her predicament.

There is no doubt that “Obvious Child” breaks the silence in the film industry, around the “a-word.” Part of film’s purpose is to reflect the social truth of a time — and the truth is that one in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit think tank specializing in reproductive health. Americans need films that will elevate public discourse on the subject, which is too often marred in vitriolic pro-life vs. pro-choice debate.

Unfortunately, “Obvious Child” fails to weave abortion into a larger, textured story about young adulthood and sexuality. It hovers on a superficial level, almost distracting audiences with easy jokes, rather than confronting the complexity of its subject. Sexual health and reproductive rights are issues to think deeply about, and this film does not give its audience cause to think deeply.


Gillie Collins works as the Chief Film and Visual Arts Critic at The Stanford Daily. A New York City native, she enjoys snacking on pumpkin bread and reading. At Stanford, she studies International Relations and English Literature. Contact her by paper airplane or email at gcollins 'at' stanford.edu.

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