Last year, Lake Bell’s wonderful “In a World” stuck to the conventional tenets of a romantic comedy while featuring the feminist theme of a woman trying to make it in the sexist industry of trailer voiceovers. This year, Gillian Robespierre’s equally winning “Obvious Child,” screening as part of SXSW's Festival Favorites program, similarly sticks to the rom-com arc while throwing in a gutsy curveball: The film’s main woman and man fall in love while getting an abortion.
That main woman would be Donna (Jenny Slate, charismatic and funny as hell), a twentysomething stand-up comedian, who cracks jokes about her Jewish looks, flatulence and daily panty stains at a small Brooklyn dive bar. She’s been dumped by her boyfriend, and is pickling in break-up booze when she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a straight-arrow business student wearing the decidedly non-Brooklyn attire of a crisp button-up and boat shoes. You probably know the story from here: These two polar-opposite types hook up, she gets accidentally pregnant, and it takes them several weeks of flirting and fighting to realize they may mean more to each other than just a one-night stand.
Robespierre’s crisp direction and Slate’s infectious personality would be enough to carry such a story even if those were its only aspirations, but they opt for a different route. Donna realizes that -- duh -- having a baby at this point in her life would be fairly disastrous: She’s low on income, low on interest in child-rearing, and low on the emotional maturity needed to do so. Like many twentysomethings of the twenty-first century, Donna is the obvious child of the title. So, with little ado (but with some drawn-out difficulty telling Max), she goes for the abortion.
And now for an observation. In the instances that abortion does make its way into romance-oriented films, it usually goes something like this: 1) the leading lady gets pregnant, 2) the leading lady considers an abortion, and then 3) the leading lady opts to keep the child. Thus such films broach the “edgy” possibility of an abortion without actually sacrificing any of the non-crowdpleasing effects that an abortion might have on the storyline. (Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s “Juno” would be the salient example.)
So hats off to Robespierre and Slate. They’ve managed to deliver a film with actual edge, which somehow retains the characteristics that any successful romantic comedy should have: It’s heartwarming, romantic and very funny (and, significantly, at no point do they downplay the emotional ramifications an abortion can have on a woman). This is the type of crowd-pleaser we could use more of.
"Obvious Child" has been picked up for North America by A24.