Perhaps that’s because, if rendered faithfully, securing an abortion in much of America has seemed so easy that the decision fails to drum up sufficient dramatic tension or audience sympathy to please a diverse crowd. In a country where a woman’s right to choose is now safe and legal (though less and less accessible—a plot point I’d rather not have available), filmmakers perhaps risk making their characters seem self-involved for making a choice that comes with no personal consequences. Last year, Planned Parenthood executive vice president Dawn Laguens told the Nation that before Roe v. Wade, women who experienced an unplanned pregnancy faced a stigmatized and dangerous choice (one that makes for a compelling central conflict for a sympathetic character). But now, the organization is beginning to move away from the “pro-choice” label, because abortion is accessible enough that emphasizing a woman’s “choice” sounds “frivolous,” “like choosing your cellphone plan.”
In order to skirt that connotation, American films that do follow through on their abortion plots take care to place their pregnant woman in dire circumstances—like having them impregnated by obviously unfit fathers. In 1982, Fast Times at Ridgemont High became the first comedy of its kind to present an unapologetic depiction of a modern-day abortion when Stacy, a high school girl played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, becomes pregnant after having sex with a classmate and never considers carrying the pregnancy to term. But it’s easier to sympathize with Stacy because she’s been knocked up by Mark, an obvious sleaze. Her decision is retroactively endorsed when she tells him she’s pregnant, and he responds by haggling over the procedure’s cost, then promises to give her a ride to the clinic but never shows. A 2013 plotline on NBC’s Parenthood performs the opposite trick: It has sensitive high school protagonist Drew drive girlfriend Amy to the clinic, support her through the procedure despite his private desire to keep the baby, and call her “beautiful” when he drops her off. Then, she instantly dumps him, and he breaks into tears.
High Fidelity moved the needle a bit by allowing the film’s own protagonist to fill the role of the unfit prospective father, but the plot is carefully constructed to leave both Rob Gordon and love interest Laura off the hook for the choice. Laura never tells Rob about the pregnancy, because he’s cheating on her, giving Laura the “unfit father” excuse and Rob the freedom to redeem himself later when he learns of the abortion without carrying the weight of contributing to the actual decision. High Fidelity is the rare comedy where the man and the woman who contributed to an unplanned pregnancy get together in the end, but it happens only after both characters have supposedly matured past their youthful indiscretions. Ten years later, Greenberg also pairs up boy and girl in the end after the film’s heroine undergoes an abortion, and the procedure itself is presented frankly and without judgment. Still, the gender dynamics that surround the abortion—25-year-old Florence says the experience has encouraged her to get her life together; meanwhile, while she’s conked out at the hospital, her 40-year-old boyfriend gropes at some 20-year-old girls at home—are grim.
Any account of abortion on screen wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Dirty Dancing, which executes a triple threat with its abortion subplot: In it, dancer Penny becomes impregnated by a womanizing, cheating waiter; she secures a botched illegal abortion that leaves her ill; and her extended abortion recovery period allows a romance to bloom between her dance partner Johnny and her temporary stand-in, Baby, neither of whom have personally aborted a fetus. Impressive.
But Obvious Child executes an even more remarkable feat. While other films that touch on abortion conspire to neutralize a woman's choice, or else punish her for it, Obvious Child never dwells on Donna’s decision. (This is no “Donna’s Dilemma.”) Instead, it plays with all the other choices inherent in the abortion decision—like how much to involve the man in the choice, how to tell your mom, and how to talk about it all publicly—and it does it all with humor and poignancy without getting glib.
Yes, the film’s satirical potential is somewhat limited by its unambiguous politics. The filmmakers have teamed up with abortion-rights group NARAL to sell the movie, and promotional materials state that “Obvious Child is a story that depicts one young woman’s reality and many women’s rights.” And the movie features the most charmingly competent Planned Parenthood doctor that a young, sexually active woman has ever seen. (Unlike Fast Times’ “Free Clinic” or Juno’s “Women Now,” Planned Parenthood signed on to display its insignia in the film.) But Obvious Child’s politics have the advantage of conforming to the reality that many American women actually experience in their everyday lives. This reality is quite obvious on the Internet, where a 25-year-old woman recently posted a video of herself smiling through her abortion, but Obvious Child is the rare feature to dare to tell the familiar tale: By age 45, one in three will choose an abortion, most women have the procedure in their 20s, and while some regret it or experience sadness or guilt, most feel relief and, yes, happiness.
For too long, Hollywood has been offering up either the tragic abortion narrative or the implausible motherhood story without giving the abortion caper its due. Obvious Child makes this heretofore untold tale look like a piece of cake. The film manages to be revolutionary by treading the most traditional of rom-com territory: A girl meets a boy, and after navigating a series of miscommunications and obstacles, one of which happens to be an abortion, they live happily ever after. Or at least through a snuggly, post-abortive viewing of Gone With the Wind.