2014, Dir. Gillian Robespierre
Gene: Listen, change is good Donna Donna: Oh man, that’s like the rudest thing you’ve ever said to me
Just like its heroine, Donna Stern, played with vigorous briskness and poignancy by ex-SNL star Jenny Slate, there is something disarmingly honest and arresting about Obvious Child. The debut feature of screenwriter-filmmaker Gillian Robespierre comes with ample praise from the latest Sundance Film Festival but also with the uncomfortable tag ‘abortion comedy’ attached to it.
The story is simple: Donna, a struggling stand-up comedian is recovering from an abrupt and painful break-up while facing the prospect of unemployment when the bookstore that keeps her afloat is forced to close down. The cherry on top comes when she finds herself pregnant after having what she thought was a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), a business student who is sweet but really not her style at all. It is a difficult curve and the fact that Max keeps popping up and asking her out on dates only makes things trickier.
What may sound as a shallow, inverted version of unwanted pregnancy comedies in the vein of Knocked Up and Juno is in fact, and quite refreshingly so, a sincere and thoughtful portrait of a woman, who while is privileged to be living in a time when abortion is a valid and widely available option (even though not everywhere in the US for that matter and definitely not around the world), this doesn’t make the decision any less complex. Even more so, Obvious Child is not preoccupied with the decision itself but with its echo, everything that it sets to motion for its heroine who is used to employ her body and feelings as material for her comedy act. Not that this is in any way a story about a superficial wise-cracking girl who turns all serious after she gets pregnant; there isn’t any kind of moral in the story or dramatic transformation for Donna who, as best friend Nellie states, remains throughout ‘unapologetically herself’. What Obvious Child is offering is a genuine, non-emphatic and self-deprecating coming-of-age comedy from and about women who are complex and well-rounded even when they are a mess.
This is not to say that it does not come without any flaws: the humour is raucous and maybe too American for international audiences, there is some unnecessary quirkiness in some of Donna’s behaviour and mannerisms and although its pure female approach is hugely welcomed, it sometimes feels that the film is a bit too self-aware of its views and constructed around them. In its effort, for instance, to subvert the alpha-male archetype and other repulsive Hollywood stereotypes for men, Obvious Child is perplexed toward its main male character Max who is a bit twee, largely submissive and eternally patient with Donna’s raunchy jokes. Would he presumably also remain unfazed if referred to as a “male human” who is “ok” because he has “a working dick” in her act, contrarily to her jerk ex-boyfriend? For such a realistic movie it feels odd that Max keeps asking Donna out after having been unequivocally shut down twice (if it was a female character we would most definitely see her as a saddo). It is also somewhat awkward that Robespierre feels the need to bluntly throw some feminist textbook at our faces via Nellie’s character (played nonetheless with skill by Gaby Hoffmann), who blurts that “a bunch of weird old white men in robes get to legislate our cunts” -as if we wouldn’t be able to get the message otherwise.
Despite its occasional clumsiness and aggressiveness, however, Obvious Child, remains charming and potent and deserves all the praise it’s got, not only because it is a contemporary romantic comedy that deals with abortion as a fact of life and not as a subset of politics or religion –at last!- but, perhaps more importantly, because it makes part of a much needed new wave of emerging female filmmakers telling stories about women of their generation.