Sophie Mayer hails Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child for depicting abortion as a reasonable choice for those who have it
Why deny the obvious child? So runs the chorus to Paul Simon’s 1990 single, which plays over the closing credits of Gillian Robespierre’s immensely enjoyable first feature. Obvious Child is as much of an earworm (or its filmic equivalent) as the song itself. You’ll come out humming the smart one-liners, as you’d expect in a film about a stand-up comedian (Donna, played by comedian Jenny Slate), but also in tune with the film’s politics. Simon’s song also soundtracks a scene at the heart of the film, central both for its goofy, joyful physical comedy and because it’s the narrative motor.
For Donna, like for so many before her, alcohol consumption plus the fiddliness of condoms leads to an unplanned pregnancy. With support from best friend and roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), she chooses to have an abortion, moral judgement free. Hearing about the condom fiasco, Nellie tells Donna she “played Russian roulette with [her] vagina”, a pro-contraception rather than anti-sex stance, and she later narrates her own, painless abortion. In fact, the only moment of indrawn breath comes when the doctor (Cindy Cheung) tells Donna how much the medical procedure will cost: “$500? That’s my whole rent, almost,” whispers the usually vocal Donna, who has just lost her job because the bookstore where she works, Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (a real store in Manhattan’s West Village) is closing (IRL it’s still open, phew, and loves its role in the film).
While the film never really addresses how Donna raises the money, it certainly presents a contrast to the more fancy-free romantic views of the educated white Brooklyn postfeminist precariat, from The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman) to Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach). More thoughtful and realist, Obvious Child is also kinder and funnier. Donna’s stand-up routine turns on self-deprecation and bodily fluids, but Obvious Child is a shift away from the comedy of awkwardness that dominates US hipster indie cinema. The film cleverly includes a toe-curling cameo turn from David Cross as Sam, a fellow comedian who tries to hit on Donna after she’s turned him down, from which Donna walks away, rather than getting embroiled in the awkward. Over at cléo, actor Deragh Campbell – who played an Irish teenager travelling in the US who finds out she’s pregnant in Matt Porterfield’s I Used to be Darker – rather brilliantly calls this “very reasonable filmmaking.”
Campbell’s comments are part of a roundtable with writers Zeba Blay and Fariha Róisín, introduced by the cléo editors emphasising: “While the conversations around Obvious Child ranged from the celebratory to the critical, the point was that people really want to talk about this comedy.” In fact, without getting people talking, the film would never have got made. Robespierre’s original 2009 short started a heated discussion on the internet, welcomed by the F-Word’s American counterparts BUST, Jezebel and Bitch with a loud “AT LAST!”. The short was made in response to films like Juno (Jason Reitman), scripted by postfeminist icon Diablo Cody, and Knocked Up (Judd Apatow) that omit abortion from the list of options for their middle-class white protagonists. This refusal of privilege came as a slap to viewers who couldn’t afford that choice, an exclusion zone shaped (in the UK as in the US) by class and race.
Roísín and Blay point out that the film feels more welcoming to viewers of colour than the current wave of white feminist hipster indie. One of the reasons for that is that the film, from Paul Simon on, has a specific ethnic world: New York liberal Judaism. Unlike Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) in Girls, Donna – who jokingly describes herself as the offspring of a menorah and Natalie Imbruglia – is the protagonist rather than exotic Other. Her best friends Nellie and Joey (Gabe Liedman) share this liberal Jewish background, which shapes their warmth and their relaxed attitudes to sexuality. Donna’s dad Jacob (Richard Stern) is a Henson-esque puppet maker and TV writer, a tribute to the 1960s “I’m OK, You’re OK” liberal multiculturalism whence Sesame Street sprang. Her mom Nancy (Polly Draper), a successful business studies prof, refers to Donna’s childhood attendance at the kind of summer camp made famous by Judy Blume and Paula Danziger novels.
Nancy also tells Donna about getting an illegal termination in New Jersey in the ’60s, alluding to the origins and necessity of women’s pro-choice activism. Obvious Child crosses the Atlantic as the debate about abortion heats up (again) on both sides of the ocean: NBC refused to carry the film’s trailer if it included the word abortion – a ban that was overturned by a vociferous online petition by Planned Parenthood and NARAL. In the UK, its release follows the news of a refugee and rape survivor in Ireland who was forced into a caesarean after applying for an abortion under the terms of the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. Its journey to the big screen in the US has been framed by dramatic stories of the decreasing provision of abortion and sexual health across the country, from the assassination of late-stage abortion provider Dr. George Tiller on 31 May, 2009 to the 700 new laws regulating female bodies pushed by Republicans in 2013. At the same time, feminists of colour are pushing white feminism to recognise the broader framework of reproductive justice.
In 2014, a film in which a reasonable person with reasonable friends and family has a reasonable abortion (I love that she shaves her legs the night before the procedure, as if it were a date) should seem like an obvious story, a hackneyed sitcom episode we’ve seen before. We haven’t, and that’s what makes Obvious Child important, starting conversations about not only what it covers (Donna’s financial struggles and her emotive quandaries about who to inform and how), but how much farther it could go. Moreover, the film is like its protagonist. As Nellie tells Donna: “You’re unapologetically yourself on stage every night, and that’s why people love you.” Whatever the quibbles, this film is unapologetically its lovable self – and, let’s hope, the first of many.
The film opens in UK cinemas today.
Pictures are stills from the film, taken from Obvious Child UK Facebook page. First picture is Jenny Slate as Donna, performing on stage. Second picture is Jenny Slate as Donna, looking unhappy and drinking coffee. Third picture is Jake Lacy as Max and Jenny Slate as Donna, laughing as talking on the street.