Quite a week at the Supreme Court, wasn’t it? Even though I’m blessedly beyond the age of having to worry about unwanted pregnancy, I’m still reeling from that one/two punch: first, a decision making it illegal for states to create buffer zones to protect clients of women’s health clinics (no matter what they’re there for) from being harassed and intimidated by anti-abortion activists; and second, a decision allowing family-owned businesses to impose their religious beliefs on their employees by refusing to provide them with health insurance plans that cover contraception for women (even while they cover vasectomies and Viagra for men). What was that you were saying about there being no such thing as a “war on women” going on in America today?
One can only hope that these huge setbacks for women’s reproductive rights will serve as a wakeup call to all who take social progress for granted, and as a reminder that the people you elect as president will affect your life in myriad meaningful ways long after their terms have expired, as a result of their Supreme Court appointments. Meanwhile, if you’re feeling depressed, a cinema near you has just the timely tonic that you need: a winsome, subversive, funny little movie about a young woman who gets knocked up by a guy she barely knows and decides, without angst or guilt or hesitation, to avail herself of an abortion. And it’s no big deal.
Yes, Obvious Child (co-produced, incidentally, by Joey Carey, son of Woodstock documentarian Tobe Carey) is a rom/com, but it’s not your mother’s rom/com. Usually in this sort of scenario – trusting, impulsive young hipster who deserves better gets dumped by cheating boyfriend, loses job, meets nice guy in a bar who isn’t really her “type,” drinks too much, goes home with him, experiences contraceptive failure – well, you know what happens: She realizes that the unhip guy is really good for her and decides against all reason to keep the baby. She “follows her heart,” and somehow they all live happily ever after.
Well, guess what? Broke, late-20s wannabe comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is following her heart, too – only it doesn’t lead where the sentimental genre conventions insist that it ought to lead. When her pregnancy test comes up positive, she has just found out that the bookstore where she works is going out of business, and her standup performances in a tiny nightclub are too irregular to pay her share of the rent, let alone her lingering student loan debt. She has no health insurance. She’s not in a steady relationship. Her choice is obvious, and first-time director Gillian Robespierre doesn’t weigh it down with superfluous drama.
Donna is more than a little flaky and capable of making really poor, emotion-driven decisions, like leaving hundreds of drunken messages on her caddish ex’s voicemail and loitering outside his apartment building door. But with the help of her two best friends – steady, supportive roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), who has an abortion in her own past, and gay fellow comedian Joey (Gabe Liedman), who believes in Donna’s talent and minces no words about her dating choices – she gets her act together just enough to do the sensible, self-preservative thing when it comes to an unplanned pregnancy. (And because she lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, rather than in some red state or small backwater town, she doesn’t even have to run a gantlet of protestors waving placards with lurid photos of aborted fetuses to get to the clinic.)
What’s most refreshing is that the pregnancy and subsequent abortion are just the MacGuffin; they’re not what Obvious Child is really about. It’s about relationships both good and bad; about what it’s like to be in your 20s and creative and trying to make a living in a big city in tough financial times; about letting your parents be your allies again once you’re done with adolescence; about taking risks in your art and with your emotions; about learning from your mistakes and failures how to move forward with head held high.
The whole cast is strong, but the most compelling reason to see this movie is Slate’s bravura performance. Hopefully after this she won’t be remembered primarily as “that female comedian who got kicked off Saturday Night Live for dropping the F-bomb,” but rather as an actress who can walk around wearing her character’s insides on her outside, raw and real and flawed and in-the-moment whether the character is happy or hurting. Though she does three standup comedy monologues in the course of the film, they’re her most studied, least funny moments. It’s in showing us how Donna grapples with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, plus the occasional moment of grace unlooked-for, that she truly shines.
It helps that Slate has a decidedly unconventional sort of attractiveness that crumples on a dime, and a disorganized way of moving and speaking that suggests what might have been spawned had Annie Hall and Alvy Singer stayed together long enough to produce offspring. She’s graceful in her rare moments of elation, awkward when she fails, economical when her BS radar is working properly. The actress carries this film on her shoulders with sureness even when her character’s are bowed with betrayal and grief.
Though this isn’t by any means the sort of rom/com that looks at budding romantic possibilities through rose-colored glasses, neither is it a downer. Max (Jake Lacy), the new guy in Donna’s life, is a downright adorable, chipmunk-cheeked Vermonter who is upfront about wanting grandchildren. His whitebread squareness may stick out like a sore thumb in Donna’s edgy downtown milieu – if you ever saw The Return of the Secaucus Seven, he may remind you of the character Dwight – but when his siphed-soled L. L. Bean boat mocs land in dog droppings on a Brooklyn sidewalk, Max’s sense of humor can handle it. And wonder of wonders, he seems genuinely to like women. We are left with some hope that children and grandchildren might indeed be one of the possible outcomes of this relationship experiment, even if this particular pregnancy wasn’t a keeper.
Anyone who has ever been a floundering 20-something should be able to enjoy Obvious Child, so long as they aren’t doctrinaire opponents of abortion and can handle a fairly heavy dose of bodily-function humor (which somehow seems less self-indulgent and infantile coming from a woman than from, say, a male character in a Judd Apatow movie – but maybe that’s just me). In particular, any heterosexual woman who has ever stayed up into the wee hours with a college roommate talking about the absurdities of men, and how we “can’t live with ’em/can’t live without ’em,” should be moved to stand up and cheer for poor, foolish, brave, unfiltered Donna Stern by the end.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.