It's not until the credits roll that the most interesting thing about Gillian Robespierre's film Obvious Child comes into focus: Throughout the movie, which has been billed as the romantic comedy about abortion, there isn't one person who suggests that Donna (played by delightful ball of neurosis Jenny Slate) should rethink the procedure. Perhaps it is because Donna lives in a bubble — the bubble of privilege, the bubble of an incredibly liberal upbringing, or the bubble of North Brooklyn, where she practices her stream-of-consciousness comedy at an unnamed Williamsburg bar. But, that voice, the one that we've heard in countless movies and TV shows, gently and tentatively concerned, "Are you sure this is what you want?" is never heard.
Which is weird, but not bad. Hollywood has presented us with a couple of examples of strong, opinionated women who find themselves "in a way," but cheerfully reject abortion and charmingly grow because of their decision (i.e. Juno). Yet there are way fewer abortion narratives portrayed on screen than the number of women having abortions in real life. When pregnancy termination appears in mainstream media, it is always presented as A Big Deal (tonight, on a very special episode of Parenthood, for instance), where an array of concerns are brought up.
Not only did Robespierre make the choice to not even feature the decision-making process, she took out the other side of the discussion entirely. "It was a silent choice," explains Robespierre, "and having the procedure is something our culture doesn't want to ever talk about." Donna just knows this is what she wants to do, and the audience is expected to accept it, just like her besties (played by Slate's real-life bestie Gabe Liebman and the bestie to all Brooklyners everywhere Gaby Hoffmann) and her mother. Not only does it take gumption on a filmmaker's behalf to place this expectation on us, but it's a powerful — and important — thing to do. "Donna is making the other choice," says Robespierre. And, lo and behold, "...It isn't ruining her life." In fact, and this will really induce rage in anyone hoping to protest the film, it even ends — dare we say it — happily.
Viewers have long been subjected to the narrative of masculine screwups, with consciously messy stars like Zach Galifianakis, Paul Rudd, Michael Cera, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill raking it in at the box office. And, Slate's Donna can go toe-to-toe with any of the boys when it comes to jokes about fecal matter and flatulence. (In fact, the movie opens with an excruciatingly hilarious scene with Donna onstage recounting her declining sex life with her then-current boyfriend, while said boyfriend, grimacing in back, prepares to break up with her.) So, in the world where masturbation jokes can nearly frame entire movies, it is refreshing to watch Slate relish saying the word "vagina" (which she does, frequently). It also assumes that, when women are entering into the comedy game using ribald, carnivalesque humor, they will also use what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the "grotesque body." And, what is more body-oriented and uncomfortable than an unwanted pregnancy?
Yes, it is true there is plenty to laugh at during Obvious Child. But, the real triumph here is that Donna does not ever, ever think abortion is hilarious. She thinks the situation that led up to it is hilarious; she thinks that the conversations she has with her friends about it are hilarious; and even the way she discloses it to the world might be construed as hilarious. But, the procedure itself is not funny. The fact that her mother had to obtain one illegally in the '60s is not funny. The other women, scared and alone in the waiting room, are not funny. And, Slate and Robespierre suggest that these events — both funny and not funny, momentarily shaping, but never defining — are just a part of life.
Obvious Child opens today.