'Obvious Child' Takes a Gentle—and Long-Overdue—Look at a Thorny Topic

By all conventional standards, Obvious Child is a small film. It’s a first feature from a relatively inexperienced director (Gillian Robespierre), features a cast made up mostly of bit players and character actors, and was financed in part by a Kickstarter drive that exceeded its $35,000 goal by two grand and change—an amount that probably wouldn’t have covered the fake-sweat budget of that shiny new Transformers thing.

For such a small movie, though, Obvious Child feels pretty momentous. Timing is undoubtedly a factor—Robespierre’s romantic comedy opened in Knoxville just three days before the Supreme Court’s contentious Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling—but the movie was overdue long before the court took on that particular birth-control time bomb.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss Obvious Child without talking about its pivotal plot point right up front, so here it is: Obvious Child is a funny, lewd, and very gentle rom-com about a young woman who decides to have an abortion. Donna Stern, played by SNL vet and occasional Parks and Recreation cast member Jenny Slate, is a struggling stand-up comic whose life mostly consists of stumbling from one crisis to the next. In the film’s opening scene, Donna is dumped by her cheating boyfriend; a few minutes later, she learns she’s destined for unemployment in a few weeks when the bookstore where she works closes its doors.

Frazzled and forlorn, Donna means to blow off some steam with a night at a scruffy-trendy Williamsburg bar with her GBF and fellow stand-up comic, Joey (Gabe Liedman). Her night of boozy commiseration takes an unexpected turn—well, unexpected for Donna, at least—when she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a sweet and misplaced young software engineer in an Oxford shirt and deck shoes.

Donna and Max’s night together is a great sequence; rarely has a rom-com hook-up been depicted with such honesty and exuberance. The morning after is predictably awkward. Though it’s clear they really do like one another, Max and Donna go their separate ways.

Only, of course, Donna is pregnant, and most of Obvious Child is concerned with her assertion that she’s absolutely not ready to be a parent. If you’ve heard or read anything at all about the movie, the abortion horse is probably already out of the abortion barn, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Donna goes through with the procedure. There are many surprises along the way, though, most of which involve the responses Donna encounters.

Many people with conservative views have condemned Obvious Child as “pro-abortion,” while liberal viewers have been inclined to tout the film as a standard-bearer for the reproductive-rights movement. Both declarations, I think, miss the point of the movie. One of the loveliest things about Robespierre’s film is that it doesn’t politicize the issue at all. Right-wing bloggers are complaining that the movie doesn’t offer a dissenting, anti-abortion viewpoint, but neither does it spend much time arguing in favor of Donna’s choice. In fact, the most radical thing about Obvious Child is not that its main character has an abortion, but that it expects viewers from both sides of the debate to be grown-ups about it.

As much as I liked it, I have to admit that Obvious Child feels a bit thin at times. I don’t take my cellphone into movie theaters and my watch doesn’t light up, but if it did, I’d probably have glanced at it a few times. There’s a subplot involving David Cross as a skeezy comic that wanders off into irrelevance, and one can’t help thinking it was just tossed in to fill some time. That seems to be a thing that happens a lot when a feature begins as a short film, and it’s not any kind of a deal-killer here—just a minor quibble. It also bears mention that if fart jokes and frequent vagina references offend you, you should maybe skip this one.

Ultimately, Obvious Child displays more progressiveness in its ideas about storytelling than in its politics. Whether we like it or not, women have abortions every day, and those women, and their experiences, are woefully underrepresented in popular media. Artists are tasked with representing and interpreting the human experience, and we shouldn’t get to look the other way because some of us don’t like what we see. Obvious Child doesn’t ask us to agree or disagree with Donna’s decision; it just asks us to acknowledge it, and to respect the fact that, however you feel about it, it’s her decision to make. From the movie’s perspective, it isn’t right or wrong—it just is.