Obvious Child, directed and co-written by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate (of SNL and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On fame), has been touted as a romantic comedy about abortion. But as with most “toutings” this depiction crumbles if you push on it very hard. Because Obvious Child is a film about a woman in her late 20s, Donna Stern, and focuses on a period in her messy, human life. Donna’s unintended pregnancy and decision to abort constitute one aspect of her story but calling Obvious Child a “romantic comedy about abortion” detracts from the film’s charms.
Let’s break it down. Obvious Child is entirely aware of its genre, hitting several of the requirements for contemporary romantic comedies. Donna, the protagonist, works in an independent bookstore by day and performs stand-up comedy by night. She is messy and quirky and not afraid to discuss bodily functions (her own and others’) either on stage or in general. She has an equally quirky father and, in contrast, a completely with it, type-A mother. She also has two best friends to use as sounding boards: an outspoken roommate, Nellie, and a supportive “gay BFF,” Joey (delightfully played by Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman, respectively). In hitting these notes, Obvious Child grounds the audience in familiar terrain in order to expand the boundaries of the romantic comedy genre.
Even as it honors romantic comedy tropes, Obvious Child also subverts them. For one, Donna actually seems like a real woman rather than a “real woman” played with messy hair or funky clothes by Cameron Diaz or Drew Barrymore. As Monika Bartyzel states in her discussion of Obvious Child and the limits of embodied women on film: “The film is set in the bone-chilling cold of a New York City winter, and its heroine wears layers of knits, doesn’t obsess about makeup, and has many important conversations in a graffiti-ridden co-ed bar bathroom.”
Obvious Child also deconstructs the “meet cute” scenario requisite in romantic comedies. Yes, the film uses the “meet cute,” several times in fact, but none of those are the initial meeting between Donna (having just given a rambling “comedy” set on her recent breakup) and Max (Jake Lacey). Donna and Max meet in a bar, drink too much, and hookup in a manner that is funny and real but not romantic or precious. It’s only after their one night stand, and after Donna discovers she’s pregnant, that the pair “meet cute”—first in the bookstore where Donna works and then through the coincidental circumstances that constitute the bread-and-butter of rom-coms. By switching the placement of the “meet cute,” Robespierre and her fellow writers suggest that sweetness, magic, and coincidence are what keep people together, not what connects them initially. Robespierre creates a film that respects the romantic comedy genre but not slavishly so, allowing Obvious Child to expand the genre’s limits and become therefore more funny and heartwarming than the usual.
Yet in discussing these romantic comedy elements of Obvious Child, I don’t want to ignore its political shading. Donna’s decision to terminate her pregnancy, including the question of telling Max (or not) and how he will (and does) react, make up a significant portion of the plot. And one cannot tell a story that involves abortion in the United States without it being political. Obvious Child comes down solidly in favor of a woman’s right to choose. It never pretends otherwise. And it therefore counters similarly themed contemporary rom-coms including Knocked Up and Juno. But by focusing on telling Donna’s story, rather than engaging in a message-heavy propaganda piece, the minds behind Obvious Child have created a lovely and hilarious film that’s “important” but also utterly charming.