When Gillian Robespierre’s directorial debut, Obvious Child, opens with the female lead Donna Stern (played by real-life comedian Jenny Slate) talking about vaginas and farts in her stand-up, you can tell you’re going to get along just fine. Expanded from a 2009 short film by the same name, created by Robespierre with fellow screenwriters Anna Bean and Karen Maine, they originally set out to make a kind of film that they did not really see being represented anywhere. Although fans of films such as Knocked Up and Juno, they noticed that the plot lines for these features, among many others, always geared towards the female lead going through with giving birth despite the less than ideal circumstances. While this is all fair enough, it is not necessarily true to the reality that some women would instead choose to terminate the pregnancy, and do so every day as simple matter of fact.
In Obvious Child, Donna is dumped, fired and discovers she is pregnant within the space of a few short rollercoaster weeks. Not feeling that she has truly made it to a stage in adulthood where she is able to adopt a maternal role towards a tiny human being, she is certain from the outset that she wants an abortion and the procedure is scheduled for Valentine’s Day (naturally). Complications arise when the father, Max (Jake Lacey), who she meets one night after a disastrous stand-up gig made up entirely of a tirade against her ex and Nazis (apparent bedfellows), rather than fade into obscurity, keeps cropping up on the radar in an attempt to fan the hesitant flames of some kind of a relationship. These are not complications in the sense that she begins to have doubts about her termination, but more along the lines of how she broaches the subject with this man she barely knows.
Robespierre excellently navigates this subject matter by setting it firmly within the context of a romantic comedy. This ensures that the film is neither dark nor controversial and, although pro-choice by default, manages to stay on the right side of becoming too political, being Donna’s own personal story that other women might identify with rather than an outright statement. It is meant to be taken exactly as it is, and in the process turns out quite warm and light-hearted. Any possible lamentation over the fact that she accidentally got pregnant in the first place or any possible doubts surrounding her abortion are resolutely omitted in the place of emphasising that although she is in a sometimes difficult, definitely strange situation she is absolutely going to be okay.
Jenny Slate is a revelation as Donna, with the perfect mix of charisma and goofy, obscene humour to make her character both likeable and believable. She is unapologetically open and honest about what’s going on in her life, never holding back in her stand-up, the instrument through which she exposes and works through her life issues like her own very public version of therapy. Jake Lacey as Max is an endearing, slightly more innocent figure stood next to Donna’s more wicked sense of humour – a genuine, clean-cut, nice guy – though he matches the pace of her repartee with ease. There’s never a hint that they’ll be together forever (although, drunkenly peeing in the street together seems to have a reasonably successful kind of bonding effect), but the slow blossoming of their relationship amidst the unconventional circumstances has a cosy kind of playfulness about it.
Obvious Child reinforces the idea that, as fact, abortion is something that many women have experienced and are maybe yet too and this is an important factor considering Robespierre’s motive in making the film, but mostly this is about Donna and watching her story – drunken tirades, ex-stalking, reckless dancing and all. Nice guy and budding romance aside, she never intends to go full term and in this way it is bracingly honest. It makes for great viewing when filmmakers can bend genres, however much or little, and although the Brooklyn, NY environment which the characters and events imbibe is not exactly novel, Robespierre’s debut feature has winningly turned the traditional idea of the romcom on its head.
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Stars: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann
Runtime: 83 min