Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Obvious Child is being labelled as an abortion comedy, and I find that assessment simplistic and a bit unfortunate. The film is a strong, affecting character study about a young woman that hasn’t quite grown up yet. It’s unique in its demonstration of a strong female protagonist and its emphasis on issues that don’t usually get discussed in our media. More specifically, abortion. The film centers on Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a Brooklyn comedian who often channels her personal life into her work, leading to a break-up with her boyfriend leaving to be with her best friend. They’ve been seeing each other for months and even have a dog together, so she knows it’s real. She finds out the next day that her job is going out the window due to a store closure. Basically everything that could possibly go wrong does.
She does stand-up at a bar regularly, but one night after her break-up she goes on stage drunk and makes a fool of herself. One of her best friends, Joey (Gabe Liedman), encourages her to drink more because she deserves it, which leads to her meeting Max (Jake Lacy). He’s a young, successful student that latches onto Donna’s style, probably because he likes the prospect of an easy one-night stand. They end up having sex, Donna leaves in the morning, and assumes they’ll never see each other again. She’d be wrong. A couple weeks later she finds out that she’s pregnant and plans to get an abortion after telling one of her friends, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann). Nellie reveals that she’s had an abortion before, and treats it like it’s not a big deal. It’s a rare representation to see how candidly the characters talk about such a touchy subject in our culture, but in reality twenty-somethings treat abortion as a reality of our times, a dramatic turn from the previous generation.
There’s an honesty to Gillian Robespierre’s film and the way it handles real-life issues with a striking intimacy. The film is a prime example of comedy emerging out of pain, with Donna facing constant turmoil and using her stand-up (and alcohol, often) as a catharsis. Yet there’s also the way that abortion doesn’t define these characters. Many women in the film are seen talking about abortion, either because they had one themselves or they know of people that have. It’s not the taboo topic that many believe it to be. The film explores these elements through a solid mix of affecting scenes: a hilarious discussion of how Jewish Donna is in comparison to Max’s Christianity, a muted conversation between Donna and her mother about their 20s, and a biting, frustrated rant from Nellie about women’s rights in today’s world, to name a few.
I’ve seen the film twice, and I love engaging with these characters and their ways of life. There’s a subtlety to every interaction and the script’s confidence in expressing exactly what’s on its mind. Donna has no understanding of filtering her words, and it makes the film much more brutally honest than expected. Obvious Child also proves that Jenny Slate should be leading a lot of raunchy comedies; she commands the screen and helps bring out the nuances of Gillian Robespierre’s script. The film is atypical due to the way the conflict and ebb-and-flow of the story do not follow the abortion, but rather Donna’s everyday struggles with romance. It’s refreshing to see a romantic comedy about something more complex and important than random strangers falling for each other. In tackling a wholly unique topic and handling it with care and grace, Obvious Child is hilarious and daring.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)