REVIEW: Obvious Child [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 83 minutes | Release Date: June 6th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): Gillian Robespierre
Writer(s): Gillian Robespierre / Karen Maine & Elisabeth Holm (story) /
Anna Bean, Karen Maine & Gillian Robespierre (short film)

“Let’s do it on Valentine’s Day”

It seems like a slight on the film since it’s a comedy, but I sincerely applaud Obvious Child for taking the subject of abortion seriously. Or maybe I should say naturally because while I never felt preached at from either side of the issue, I did laugh hard and often. There’s no flippant joke showing a protestor outside the clinic a la Juno or any espousing of a political agenda like the end of The Visitor turning immigration compassion into system vilification—it simply lets the action be real. Women get pregnant; women get abortions. It’s a fact, a legal procedure, and something that does need to be handled delicately for the unborn child and maybe most especially for the would-be mother. This depiction may be bold, but it’s also necessary and dare I say humanizing.

Because let’s be honest, this could easily have become like any other story about abortion you’ve seen where the woman is painted as a villain (killing an unborn fetus remorselessly as a right) or hero (coming to terms with her “maternal instincts” to bring this gift from God into our world). Not only do those two options make the subject black and white to the extreme that has people on both sides taking lives in the name of providing life, they’re also laughably absurd. Whether you’re Pro-Choice or Pro-Life, there needs to be a gray area of understanding the other side that rises above stereotype, religion, or politics. In the end the act itself—by the letter of the law—rests in the pregnant woman’s hands and we as a society should be cognizant of that responsibility’s weight.

Enter writer/director Gillian Robespierre and her helpers in creating the original 2009 short and this feature adaptation (Karen Maine, Anna Bean, and Elisabeth Holm). She’s found a way to put her lead (Jenny Slate‘s Donna Stern) into a position where this important decision isn’t in your face. She’s not salacious for salaciousness sake making the pregnancy a product of rape nor does she skew teenage so her audience will understand the character’s “lack of maturity” to be a mother. Donna is a twenty-something product of divorce that talks regularly with her parents, had a steady boyfriend, and does what she loves to do as a stand-up comic. She may be portrayed as a bit flighty, but she’s self-consciously so. She’s an authentic woman presented with a serious situation who wrestles with it in a realistic way.

And as we all know in life, realism brings comedy. We deflect our emotions with jokes, laugh away our fears, and hide behind sarcasm as self-defense. This is how humans do it and it’s how Donna copes onscreen. She’s insanely relatable in this way no matter your gender because she isn’t afraid to be herself—or at least no more than anyone else. She doesn’t take the pregnancy news in stride, doesn’t take the idea of abortion lightly, and is given what I—as a guy—hope would be the Y-chromosomed donor’s common response of not bailing at the slightest sign of drama. Yes the deed resulted from a drunken one-night stand (Jake Lacy‘s Max), but neither party was a predator. They may actually be perfect for one another if only the elephant in the room is made visible.

The question of the film then becomes whether or not Donna lets Max in on the ordeal. Rather than broach the subject from the side of an unborn child who “doesn’t have the ability to defend itself”, Obvious Child turns towards those involved in its creation: namely the one serving as temporary incubator. Donna’s in the driver’s seat and while it would be easier if she never saw the baby daddy again or if he was a jerk without a shred of humility, she must face that he’s not only a good guy but also someone she’d actually want to date. This adds a new layer with the philosophical question giving her complete (rightful?) control provides: whom does she let in on the secret? After all, without a relationship, how much say does Max have?

Complicated by his charm and humorously overt dialogue like him sharing how he can’t wait to be a grandpa, Donna is constantly struggling with the fact that letting him in risks losing him altogether. Is it worth it if there’s a chance he’ll be by her side? That he’ll be a human being and support her? It’s a tough call. The people surrounding (Polly Draper‘s Mom and Gaby Hoffmann‘s Nellie) her weigh in on the subject—subverting preconceptions along the way—by sharing opinions and yet never judging her if she agrees or not. They let her stand on her own convictions, providing the film with its true message of compassion and understanding no matter what you personally believe about the topic. Every character becomes a three-dimensional cliché of sorts playing their role but never steering the plot.

Donna being a comic who jokes any chance she gets—even when crying in anguish—is the best part, though. Slate’s a revelation with a genuine heart refusing to see anything as black and white after being dumped, losing her job, and seeing a plus on the pregnancy test. If she and bud Joey (Gabe Liedman) weren’t comedians you might construe their more racy jokes callous, but in this setting they’re pointed and relevant. The atmosphere helps make the romantic and familial dynamics more spontaneous too by letting things evolve naturally rather than from convention. Lacy’s Max wants a proper date with this girl and she’s desperate to do the right thing by him and herself. Whether she gets the abortion or not, though, the true human journey becomes her growing into a happy, healthy, and loved woman.

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