There are so many abortion-themed movies I’d like to see: the one about the woman from a small Texas town who has to take a Greyhound seven hours to a city with a working clinic and be sheltered by an underground railroad–style volunteer network during the mandatory waiting period. (Who would she meet along the way? What kind of encounters would they have?) The one about the teenage daughter of an evangelical Christian family who sneaks off to have the procedure in the same clinic she’d picketed with her mother many times as a child. (I can’t link to that story, because it’s just a real thing that happened to a friend of mine.) Or the one about the immigrant hotel maid who gets fired because she has to take a day off to abort the child of her sexually abusive boss—but then she successfully sues the hotel, puts the boss in jail, and opens her own small business. (That one I made up entirely, but doesn’t it sound rousing, in a Norma Rae kind of way?)
Of the infinite possible variations that could be imagined on this theme, Gillian Robespierre’s romantic comedy Obvious Child—in which Jenny Slate plays an aspiring standup comic who gets pregnant after a one-night stand—has to be among the gentlest, most unassuming, least politically incendiary alternatives possible. And yet, I have the feeling this modest little 83-minute comedy will reverberate like a gunshot in our national conversation about abortion—in part because of the casually irreverent aplomb with which Robespierre approaches this tinderboxiest of topics.
Whether you regard it as a social ill, a moral wrong, or a basic human right, the termination of unwanted pregnancies is a thing that happens—to around 1 in 3 American women, according to a disputed statistic that (in part because of problems with self-reporting) seems, if anything, likely to be on the low side. Yet this simple demographic reality is all but absent from mainstream popular culture, where abortion sometimes seems to have attained the status Hillary Clinton envisioned for it in the platform of her 2008 presidential campaign: “safe, legal, and rare” (emphasis on the rare part). Insofar as the possibility of abortion can be mentioned at all onscreen (and not verbally tiptoed around like the unspeakable name of Voldemort, as happened in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up), it must be gingerly forestalled at the last minute via miscarriage (Girls) or the heroine’s change of heart (Juno). The degree to which the onscreen abortion taboo is stronger now than in the ’80s or ’90s—when, for example, Fast Times at Ridgemont High could carry through with a subplot about a teenager’s abortion, or Citizen Ruth could send up the whole debate with sly bipartisan satire—is an index of how far we haven’t come as a nation on this enragingly intransigent topic.
That’s where Obvious Child, for all its lightness of tone, is radical: It’s not about “abortion” but about an abortion, about a specific few weeks in the life of one very funny, filthy minded, insecure young woman. Slate’s Donna Stern, a perpetually broke bookstore employee and aspiring standup comedian in her late 20s, first appears to us onstage doing her act, riffing on her own sex life with unbridled frankness (and vivid imagery—I won’t spoil the extended metaphor she uses to describe her used underpants). Offstage, Donna is far less poised. When her boyfriend (Paul Briganti) abruptly dumps her—he’s tired of having his privacy violated by her act, oh and he’s shtupping her friend Kate—Donna plunges deep into unhealthy post-breakup mode: swilling wine by the jam jar, leaving alternately apologetic and savage messages on her ex’s voicemail, even standing across the street from his apartment doing what she describes to her ever-supportive roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) as “a little light stalking.”
One night, a drunk and self-pitying Donna has a particularly awful standup set at the club where she performs. As she’s having a consolatory drink or five afterward with her friend, gay fellow comedian Joey (Slate’s longtime performing partner Gabe Liedman), a cute, square businessman named Max (Jake Lacy) strikes up a conversation. Together the three of them get so smashed that Donna and Max have peed on a sidewalk together within hours of meeting, and have had sex very soon after that. (The scene at his apartment in which they dance ecstatically in their underwear to the song named in the title is pure joy, though it’s doubtful that even two millennials this nerdy would hook up to the sounds of Paul Simon.)
A few weeks later—well, we know where this is going. Donna deduces she’s pregnant even before taking a drugstore test with her roomie. There was a condom on the premises that night, she insists—she’s just not sure exactly where it ended up, and when. The rest of Obvious Child doesn’t center around the question of whether or not Donna will have an abortion—she goes straight to Planned Parenthood to schedule one, though she’s still so early on she has to wait two more weeks—but whether or not, and how, she’ll tell Max. As a one-night stand (who seems willing, despite Donna’s dithering, to be more than that if she wants), does he have the right to know? What if he asks to come along? Who, if anyone, will help Donna pay for the procedure, given that she has no health insurance and the cost represents almost one month of her rent? (This last question is, disappointingly, elided in a movie that’s candid about so much else.)
Obvious Child, Robespierre’s debut feature, grew out of her 2009 short film of the same title that also starred Jenny Slate. At just under an hour and half, this is one of the few movies I’ve seen in the past year that seems distinctly too short—an assessment that’s only in part complimentary. Several of the film’s most important relationships feel underdeveloped. Though she’s a pivotal figure in the story, Donna’s mother, wonderfully played by Polly Draper, figures in only a handful of scenes, and relates to her daughter so differently in each one that it’s hard to follow the character’s trajectory.
Not every joke, or even riff, lands—for example, Donna’s climactic standup set, in which she details her feelings about the upcoming procedure to a crowd of first confused, then amused, strangers, could have been more sharply scripted, so that we share in the onscreen audience’s joy at watching her open up. An interlude involving David Cross as a skeezy comic who tries to pick Donna up after a show would have required more backstory not to feel like an unrelated bit. And while I enjoyed some of the scatological details of Max and Donna’s drunken meet-cute, I’m not sure even the most taboo-busting romantic comedy benefits from a scene about the hero stepping in dog-shit that includes two close-ups of the bottom of his shoe.
That said, the sturdy, dimple-faced Lacy makes for a refreshingly nongeneric romantic lead, a laid-back WASP in boat shoes with a stealth sense of humor and seemingly infinite reserves of patience. And Slate is an irresistible comic heroine, growing progressively more unhinged as her social gaffes and poor tactical decisions pile up around her. There’s something old-Hollywood about Slate’s dizzy-dame charm, and at the same time, something very modern about her unapologetic ownership of her own sexuality. “Whatever,” Donna shrugs wearily in that opening set, after recalling how uptight she used to be about appearing unladylike in front of potential sex partners. “I have a human vagina.” That may be as close as this quietly feminist film gets to issuing a manifesto. I hope humans with and without vaginas will see Obvious Child, laugh a lot, and maybe come out ready to tell their own abortion stories. If you don’t think you know any, try seeing the movie with three women.