Retrospective Film Review: Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child

Let’s face it, the romantic-comedy genre is often guilty of being overly formulaic, cheesy, stereotypical, and at times, problematic. From continuously recycled storylines to unfunny, sappy sequences, to actually suggesting stalking is a romantic gesture (it’s not); the genre’s offenses over the years have been many. However, occasionally a film will come along and completely shake up convention. That is certainly the case with Gillian Robespierre’s excellent ‘Obvious Child.’ The film follows bookstore employee and stand-up comic Donna (Jenny Slate) as her life takes a series of turns for the worse: being dumped, losing her job, and getting pregnant after a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy). She decides to have an abortion, while also unexpectedly connecting with Max. Often referred to as the ‘abortion rom-com,’ this is not only a hilarious, smart, and sweet film, but it’s brave, and an important portrayal of female experience.

‘Obvious Child’ explores this experience and Donna’s problems with sharp, sassy humour and a bold frankness that is unusual for the genre. As a character and a stand-up comic, Donna is potty-mouthed and daring, with no filter, saying the things we’re all thinking but don’t want to say. She’s a kind of character still shockingly rare to find in romantic comedies: a woman who actually feels real and relatable. She makes mistakes but means well. She has close friends and a complex relationship with each of her separated parents. She is flawed, complex, and doesn’t have a perfect life – far from it – she hasn’t got it all figured out, but she seems content before things start to go wrong. Jenny Slate portrays Donna with fantastic energy and exudes oddball charm.

obvious-child-1

Robespierre excellently balances emotions in the film with care and nuance, easily conveying both humour and Donna’s devastation. We feel her pain as she drunk dials her ex, leaving mortifying voicemail after mortifying voicemail, but we also laugh at her hilarious messages. We sympathise with her as she goes to spy on him outside his apartment, but are also aware she’s behaving ridiculously, maybe even a little pathetically. Her fling with Max has to be one of the most fun hook-up scenes on screen, as the pair crack jokes and drunkenly dance around his apartment to Paul Simon’s ‘Obvious Child.’ Her realisation that she’s pregnant is again handled superbly. As she waits for the test to reveal the result, she nervously drowns out her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and her own voice starts reeling out a radio-like show in her head, questioning her actions. Hilarious, self-deprecating, regretful, messy, and relatable all at once, this scene encapsulates the film’s nuance when exploring complex emotional situations.

Donna’s decision to have an abortion is not one she stresses over. There is no dilemma, no guilty conscience, and no scaremongering like in so many abortion narratives. She doesn’t want to have a baby, so she chooses not to. Simple as that. While, of course, abortion is a big decision, in reality many women make this decision everyday without feeling shame, despite what media representations will have you believe. Even in the otherwise progressive ‘Juno,’ the title character is scared out of having an abortion. It’s highly refreshing to watch a film that shows a woman confidently making this choice without any sense of guilt, shame, or negativity – because why should she feel this way? One of Robespierre’s aims in writing the film was to challenge and remove the stigma surrounding abortion and to depict this choice more realistically compared to numerous earlier films that she felt misrepresented unplanned pregnancy. And Donna is not alone in the film – both her mother and Nellie openly tell her about their own abortions, with Nellie simply telling her, “I never regret it.” With its matter-of-fact approach and pretty ordinary situation, the film normalises abortion and eradicates the ‘shock factor’ that media often pairs with it. ‘Obvious Child’ is a film that finally depicts abortion not as life ruining, but a valuable choice available to women, who should have full control and options available to them about their own bodies without feeling bad about it, as after all, as Nellie adds, “We already live in a patriarchal society where a group of weird old white men in robes get to legislate our c****.”

obvious-child-wide

This refreshing portrayal challenges conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, where unplanned pregnancy narratives typically see the woman deciding to have the baby and show an often unlikely couple making a go of it, portraying this as the ‘better’ choice, with pro-life moral underpinnings, explicit or not. What’s more, ‘Obvious Child’ creates a romantic pair from an unconventional place; dating a guy from a one-night stand whose abortion you’re “having,” as Donna humorously puts it. The film’s comedy is fresh and brazen, and this is also a rather sweet and lovely romance. Donna is delightfully strange and interesting, and while Max is not her usual type, he is sweet and understanding, surprising her, and they have an instant connection, chemistry, and a cute, funny rapport. This is a film both important and delightful, challenging numerous clichés, stereotypes and tropes of the genre, and is simultaneously a brilliant rom-com itself, highlighting that a woman can shamelessly have an abortion and still have a happy ending.

Watch the trailer for ‘Obvious Child’ below: