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'Obvious Child' deals with abortion with vulnerable humanity and comic relief

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JUNE 12, 2014

“Obvious Child” is a very unusual film. It is essentially a romantic comedy about abortion. The women in the film who have/have had an abortion are not ruined by it. There is no last-minute cancellation by conscience. There is no convenient absolution-by-miscarriage. Fathers are consulted, but marriage is not mentioned as a possibility. The pain is clearly felt but overcome. Love is not denied the unlucky; Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” ends the way all romantic comedies end. The way it gets there is just wholly unorthodox.

Jenny Slate (“Parks and Recreation”) stars as Donna Stern: a Brooklyn adultescent with a weekly stand-up gig and a boyfriend on his way out the door. On the rebound, she meets Max, played by Jake Lacy (“The Office”). Max is smart, wealthy, well dressed, polite and kind, so naturally the audience loves him and may secretly hope for the life of his doomed fetus. The baby is not to be — even Donna’s indulgent parents know that. Donna’s stereotypically feminist roommate, played by Gaby Hoffmann (who looks exactly as she did as a child in “Field of Dreams”) provides the political commentary on the situation, and although other characters find her frightening, they agree that she is right. Donna’s body belongs only to Donna, and no one may tell her she is right or wrong.

The style of humor in the film is best encapsulated by the essence of the meet-cute: Donna and Max share their first kiss after he has literally just farted in her face. “Obvious Child” works hard to allow a female comedian to be as selfish, as crass, as shameless about her body as male comedians are expected to be. There are laugh-out-loud moments based on vaginal discharge, women’s farts and yes, even the abortion itself. There are also unbearably tender moments when Donna seeks her mother’s counsel or her father’s support or when Max shows the world what a gentleman is really like. The film has an overall feel of vulnerable humanity, a condition that is so often denied to female characters. Donna does not end up checking the box for either whore or madonna. Her decision is one she both cries and laughs about. Life goes on.

“Obvious Child” has some tiresome moments. Set in Williamsburg and Manhattan, everyone except a set of sore thumbs in the comedy club and the abortion clinic is a pretty white person. Aside from Max, whose unavoidable goy-ness is pointed out directly, everyone is also Jewish in an insulated way. Everyone is privileged enough to never have a real job; they borrow money from their parents and drink constantly. When Donna shucks off her clothes and asks permission to join her mother in bed, it was probably meant to make the 28 year old look vulnerable and bond her with the older woman, but the first impression the scene gives is of a spoiled adult child who has never been told “no.”

An abortion provider tells Donna what the procedure will cost her, and the amount is shocking enough to make the girl burst into tears, but it’s just never brought up again. Clearly, Donna’s very privileged background makes getting the money a little uncomfortable but not impossible. All of this rich, white hand-wringing over awkwardness and never growing up makes “Obvious Child” feel like a very long episode of “Girls.”

But for all that is unusual about “Obvious Child,” and all that is disappointingly the same, it’s not a bad film. The laughs are authentic and earned, and even if they cannot agree or relate, audiences may find themselves giggling. The issues raised are real — and it’s frankly about time that they’re actually dealt with in a film without being made into a medieval morality play. This movie actually shows the way this generation cries about things that don’t matter but has the incredible strength to laugh at the truly terrible. And anyone who can’t handle that in a film has the right to make the choice to stay home.


Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].

JUNE 12, 2014

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