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'Obvious Child': Abortion Is Hard, But the Material's Hilarious

Criticwire By Emma Myers | Criticwire February 14, 2014 at 11:41AM

In the Sundance hit, Jenny Slate's stand-up comedian finds terminating an unplanned pregnancy leads to some great jokes.
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Obvious Child

There's no topic better suited to comedy than abortion -- at least that's the pro-choice premise Gillian Robespierre's debut feature Obvious Child operates on. When struggling comedienne Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) gets dumped by her boyfriend, she does what any less-than-well-adjusted twenty something woman would do: gets trashed in Brooklyn with her gay best friend and goes home with the first straight guy she meets. But in her inebriated haze, she's a little lax about the latex. "I remember seeing a condom…" Donna tells gal pal Nellie (Gabby Hoffman) in a panic a few weeks later, "I just don't remember what it did." The set up is similar to 2007's fraternal twin pictures Juno and Knocked Up, except this time, not only does the protagonist actually go through with the procedure, it provides her with her some of the best stand-up material of her career. Generating a great deal of buzz at Sundance for its subversive and scatological humor, it's hard to tell if abortion in Obvious Child works as a political statement or simply a plot device.

Befitting any good boy-meets-girl story, Donna's almost-baby daddy, Max (Jake Lacy) is her polar opposite. Dressed in chinos and a freshly ironed button down shirt, he bears all the markings of someone with a "real" job and is thus a fish-out-water amongst the hip artist types swilling beer at the Williamsburg bar where he and Donna first meet. Stealthily escaping from his apartment before he wakes the morning after, Donna is shocked when Max shows up at the second hand bookstore that (barely) employs her a few days later. As their paths continue to cross, both accidentally and on purpose, Max is increasingly charmed by Donna's verbal diarrhea, and she by the fact that he's just so damned nice

What stands out about Obvious Child is the way it downplays the emotional upheaval presumed to be a byproduct of such a big decision in a woman's life. "You killed it" Hoffman's character compliments Donna after a gutsy routine onstage. "Isn't that what I'm doing tomorrow?" Donna quips nonchalantly. This isn't to say the film is utterly devoid of feeling -- it has its fair share of tender moments -- it's just that "the big decision" is shown to be not really a decision at all. 

The loss of her low-paying day job aside, Donna is clearly light years away from being ready to raise a child -- her own infantile state is highlighted by the fact that she still cracks fart jokes both on and off the stage -- and the film never presents not having an abortion as an option. Lena Dunham took a similar approach in the first season of Girls when the free spirited Jessa discovers she's knocked up. No discussion is necessary: an appointment is simply made and the rest of the girls show up in support, no questions asked, no stigma suffered. Appropriately entitled "Vagina Panic," the episode plays out to comic avail: Jessa is late and Marnie, ever the control freak, takes it as a personal insult, throwing a mini fit in the waiting room. Hannah comforts her: "You're a really great friend and you threw a really good abortion." 

Obvious Child

Neither Dunham nor Robspierre are pioneering new territory by poking fun at reproductive rights. Sarah Silverman had a humorous segment on her own show where she has a sit-down with a couple of pro-lifers who tell her she can longer terminate any future unwanted pregnancies. Taking a moment to contemplate this deeply on a park bench, Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" accompanies an overtly sentimentalized memory montage of abortions past -- replete with noogies from her by-now-familiar gynecologist. SNL has also done its fair share of riffing on abortion legislation on "Weekend Update"; particularly memorable is Nassim Pedrad as Arianna Huffington wisely observing that "if men could get pregnant, abortion clinics would be like Starbucks: there would be two on every corner and four in every airport."

While men get to sow their wild oats, biology demands women reap them and cinematic depictions of abortion and pregnancy, particularly those written and directed by men, tend to project all kinds of emotional turmoil onto the female mind and body. Even if Donna seems emotionally weak when it comes to her break-up, slinking outside her ex's apartment she's resilient through the pregnancy and its aftermath. Obvious Child is refreshingly free of weepy monologues, righteous speeches, and moral guilt-trips -- there are no pro-life protestors waiting outside the clinic to inform Donna that her fetus already has fingernails in the hopes of changing her mind. 

Living in a liberal state like New York, it's easy to forget that a basic human right like abortion is still controversial elsewhere and upon first viewing, this film admittedly felt trivial -- enjoyable enough while unfolding but ultimately lacking in depth. But there's nothing like being in Utah to put things into perspective. While there were no protests of Obvious Child specifically, Park City had its token sidewalk cross-wielders to remind us moviegoers, very generally, of our various "sins." While its unfortunate that Obvious Child and it's spunky female lead are navigated toward the conventional, the fact that the film goes down so easy is perhaps it's most powerful weapon -- in other words, American audiences will actually go see it.  (There were a handful of films at Sundance that dealt with unwanted pregnancy in much more creative ways, all unique and none American: Natalia Smirnoff's The Lock Charmer, David Wnendt's Wetlands, and Maya Vitkova's particularly noteworthy Viktoria are certainly worth a viewing.)

There's one particularly poignant scene in Obvious Child when Donna crawls into bed with her mother (Polly Draper) and finally admits that she's pregnant. Expecting criticism -- her mother seems to disapprove of most of what her daughter does -- she's instead met with sympathy and empathy. As it turns out, mom had a pregnancy terminated in her youth long before meeting dad, and as she recounts the experience of a slightly sketchy procedure at some clandestine clinic, it suddenly becomes evident just how far reproductive rights have progressed.

The film's openly comedic -- and realistic -- treatment of the subject is something no distributor would've touched with a ten foot pole in her mother's day, but just a few weeks ago it was scooped up by A24. Perhaps the real political statement of Obvious Child is that its politics can be taken for granted in favor of the romance and one-liners that occupy its surface. 

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship For Film Criticism


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