We decided to take a break from the “great men” films of the Christmas/New Year’s season to stream Obvious Child, a very smart indie released earlier this year. Directed by Gillian Robespierre, who also co-wrote the story with Elizabeth Holms and Karen Maine, Obvious Child addresses abortion (and women’s sexuality in general) in a frank, funny, poignant style. Donna Stern (played by the adorable actor-comedienne Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comic sharing a small apartment in Brooklyn with a loyal girlfriend (the ubiquitous, always wonderful Gaby Hoffman). Donna scrapes out a living at a small, old-fashioned Brooklyn book store during the day and performs in a scrappy club at night. Her comedy is raw and sexual, Sarah Silverman-esque in its frankness about vaginas and dirty underwear, the female counterpart of guy gross-out humor, which seems more political and daring because we still don’t hear women talk about these things much in public. Donna’s club audiences respond to her, as she mixes autobiography with comedy.
In the tightly constructed narrative, Donna makes fun of her boyfriend, Ryan (Paul Briganti) in her act, and he breaks up with her in the club’s unisex bathroom, admitting he’s been having an affair with one of their friends. Donna is despondent and sinks into self-sabotaging behavior like drunk-dialing him to leave rambling messages on his voicemail and stalking him. The next time she performs, her act bombs; she can’t quite rise to the occasion of making humor from her loss. But after her set, she meets another guy in the same bathroom, who missed that night’s show. Max (Jake Lacy) joins Donna and her gay friend, Joey (Gabe Liedman), for a drink, then Max takes her home, where lively montage shows the two of them dancing wildly in his apartment and having friendly sex. Donna’s a bit trashed that night, and when it turns out she’s pregnant, she can’t really remember what happened to the condom she and Max thought they used.
(Note: Some spoilers follow. And I do think part of what’s interesting about the film is how it plays on the difference between where you expect it to go and where it does go. So, reader, beware!)
The core of the story addresses Donna’s decision to have an abortion, and that’s where Obvious Child does its compelling work. Unlike Juno, the 2007 film written by Diablo Cody, in which Ellen Page stars as a young woman with an unwanted pregnancy, Donna knows immediately that she’ll have an abortion. Her sympathetic Planned Parenthood doctor advises her to think carefully, but Donna insists she’s made her decision. Her life is a shambles; she makes no money; and her sympathetic divorced parents help her survive. Her father (Richard Kind), who’s some sort of puppeteer, supports her emotionally, and her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper), a business professor, reluctantly helps her financially. Donna knows that having a child would be disastrous; the choice is so obvious it doesn’t bear articulating.
Obvious Child, though, surprises by describing how the other people in her life respond to her decision, setting up and then undoing conventional expectations. Donna hesitates to tell her apparently strict mother, fearing her wrath, but when she appears at Nancy’s apartment distraught and crawls into her bed to share her woes, Nancy tells Donna she’s relieved (she thought her daughter was announcing that she’s moving to Los Angeles!). Nancy proceeds to relate her own story about an abortion she had in the 1960s, for which she had to travel to New Jersey with her own mother to have the procedure on a kitchen table surrounded by strangers.
Likewise, Max finds out she’s pregnant when he’s listening to the stand-up act in which Donna publicly announces her intentions. When he leaves the club without saying goodbye, Obvious Child plays on the expectation that he’ll be angry and will fight to make her keep the child. Instead, he appears the morning of the procedure with flowers, accompanies Donna to the clinic, and brings her to his apartment to recover afterward. His sweetness, and the fact that he, too, takes her choice to have an abortion as logical and legitimate, overturns the expectation that people will moralize and try to talk her out of her choice. Instead, her parents and friends respect her decision and give her room to mourn her necessary loss. Obvious Child, in other words, isn’t strident in its clearly pro-choice politics. Making the difficult choice—and insisting it is a woman’s choice—doesn’t mean you don’t mourn.
The film is rife with smart and sweet moments that illuminate emotions about abortion that rarely get a public viewing. At the clinic, as the sedative begins to take effect, two parallel tears roll down Donna’s face. In the recovery room, surrounded by other young white women of various shapes and sizes, Donna catches another woman’s eye and they smile ruefully at one another. The moment gestures toward the community of women for whom abortion is part of their life experience.
Slate is a lovely presence, who capitalizes on her nervous energy in her raw, feminist comedy routines. (She spent a year on Saturday Night Live, and has performed on various television comedy shows like Parks and Recreation and House of Lies.) But she’s also effective with Donna’s more complicated feelings, the angst of a 20-something female artist who needs time to sort out her life. This is Girls territory, but Slate and writer-director Robespierre bring a more honest, less showy vision of Donna’s emotional life. The character shares some of Lena Dunham’s character’s self-centeredness, but not to the same extent. And Slate’s performance of her Jewishness is nuanced, obvious and complicated at once; her ethnicity is unmistakable but unspoken. Max intrigues Donna because he’s so foreign to her—he’s from Vermont, wears Sperry boat shoes in the winter, and has the goishe appeal of someone utterly outside her ken.
Slate just performed in the New York Times-produced mini-films about screen kisses (here). Created and directed Elaine Constantine, these scenes set up tight scenarios that revolve around a single kiss. Slate performs with Rosario Dawson in the only female-female pairing of the nine short scenes (David Oyelowo, of Selma, and Tim Spall, of Mr. Turner, perform the male-male pair). Slate is lovely in that short moment as the object of Dawson’s affection, and the kiss they exchange is both exuberant and intimate.
I’m looking forward to seeing Slate harness her smart, appealing outsiderness in other too rarely told stories about women. Obvious Child gives her a great start.
The Feminist Spectator