Above all else, Obvious Child is a compassionate film. That might strike pro-life viewers as odd, even offensive, to say since this romantic comedy-drama features a main character getting ready to have an abortion. But in its modest, clear-eyed way, director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre’s feature debut goes beyond the issue’s moral implications to present a realistic, sensitive portrayal of how one young woman makes her decision to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. That the movie also manages to be funny and incredibly sweet is a small marvel.
Based on Robespierre’s 2009 short of the same name, Obvious Child stars rising comic actress Jenny Slate as Donna, a struggling standup in New York. A few years shy of 30, Donna hasn’t quite gotten the hang of anything yet in her life—not her career and not her relationship. (In fact, as the film opens, she walks off stage from a small Brooklyn club to discover that her boyfriend is leaving her for her friend.) Thrown into depression, Donna alternates between stalking her ex and trying to turn her misery into standup material. But it’s not until she meets a wholesome, handsome guy named Max (Jake Lacy) at the club that she can see a possibility for new love—a vision that’s complicated by the fact that she gets pregnant after their one-night stand.
Obvious Child seeks to rethink the typical twentysomething romantic comedy. The setup is almost a parody of the scenario usually visited upon a sad-sack protagonist: Not only does Donna lose her boyfriend, she also discovers her job is ending, leaving her in a state of total limbo. (Plus, she’s got a smart-aleck best friend and parents who offer sage advice at just the right moment.)
But Robespierre upends those conventions with the serious development at the film’s center. Certain that she doesn’t want to keep the baby—and not wanting to tell the father, whom she barely knows—Donna methodically prepares for the abortion procedure, which is set for Valentine’s Day. In the case of most films where an unwanted pregnancy is part of the storyline (Juno, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), the characters will usually ponder terminating the child but ultimately decide to keep the baby, ensuring a happy ending. Obvious Child takes the greater narrative risk. From the moment Donna finds out she’s pregnant, she’s sure she’s not ready to be a mother, and the movie agrees with her: She’s simply too unsettled and, frankly, immature to handle such a major responsibility.
By following a character who’s getting ready to have an abortion, and couching the plot in humor, Obvious Child will no doubt anger those who find nothing funny about the premise. But although Robespierre’s film avoids a moralistic tone, what’s surprising (and winning) is that it’s not glib or superficially provocative in its stance, either. Instead, this is quite a thoughtful comedy-drama about why women get abortions and how they react afterward. (Donna knew that her best buddy Nellie, played with sardonic precision by Gaby Hoffmann, had one as a teenager, but she comes to learn that her mother, portrayed by a sharp Polly Draper, did as well.) Obvious Child is a necessary corrective to the usual abortion-themed movie in which holding onto the child is always the right thing to do, but it’s never snide about its counterpoint agenda. The film features characters who see the issue with complexity, but it also asserts that they need not be demonized or shamed for considering abortion.
That sensible, measured attitude shouldn’t seem radical, but for the movies, it is. Consequently, the actors are working with a higher degree of difficulty than in the usual rom-com. (Even a somewhat standard scene where the main character runs into her love interest after their initial encounter is more fraught because, in this case, it involves Donna having to decide if she’s going to tell Max that she’s pregnant and terminating the child.)
Thankfully, one of Obvious Child’s best qualities is its cast, which is full of lightness without being overly cutesy. It starts with Slate, a former Saturday Night Live cast member, who has gone on to be a welcome, loony presence on sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Bob’s Burgers. As Donna, she’s dialed back a little, but that’s understandable: While Donna is undoubtedly floundering, she’s not a patronizingly lovable nincompoop, either. Slate finds a good middle ground where her harried character can try to pull herself together after being dealt a series of life-altering blows. Obvious Child can be looked at as a coming-of-age movie about a late bloomer, but Robespierre and Slate don’t condemn or coddle Donna’s choices. If anything, they’re trying to normalize them, suggesting (again, in the least provocative way possible) that maybe they’re more common among women than what we generally see at the movies with their timid black-and-white morality.
Lacy is just right as the likable, slightly dorky Max, and Richard Kind is a pro at playing Donna’s adorable, goofy father. Sometimes the writing isn’t as sharp as it could be. (Occasionally, it’s unclear if Donna’s standup act is meant to be funnier than it plays. And the knowing evoking of clichéd rom-com story beats doesn’t always lead to superior versions of stereotypical scenes.) But the movie’s generosity never falters. Obvious Child isn’t blind to the fact that abortion is the closing of a door and the ending of a possible life, but it’s grownup enough to assume that adults can watch one woman’s journey toward terminating a pregnancy and recognize the emotional intricacies that go into that decision. Touching on a red-hot issue, Obvious Child is agreeably gentle, and even wise.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Writers: Gillian Robespierre (screenplay); Gillian Robespierre, Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm (story)
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Polly Draper, Richard Kind, David Cross
Release Date: June 6, 2014