Obvious Child is agenda-driven filmmaking, a movie with a blatant and unapologetic political (and social) perspective that shapes its narrative. Like Juno, or Knocked Up, it’s about the complicated matter of abortion, and choice, and what people (in this case, a single woman) do when they’re faced with the problematic realities of unwanted pregnancy. Unlike those films, though, abortion is the protagonist’s only avenue to resolution. When circumstances leave Donna (Jenny Slate) bereft of steady income, single and heartbroken, and with a bun in the oven following a sudden (but not unwelcome) one night stand, her response is immediate: go to the doctor, order an abortion. Open and shut, clean and simple. Everybody goes home happy.
Except that Donna’s choice isn’t really a choice at all. It’s a reaction. An obvious reaction, too, similar to when we come down with the flu or run out of milk and bread before a snowstorm. It’s clear, it’s conscious, and it comes to her so instantaneously and after such a dearth of deliberation that describing her course of action in terms of choice feels disingenuous. Frankly, Donna’s trip to the clinic feels, well, obvious. Through director Gillian Robespierre’s lens, Obvious Child pantomimes a US cultural climate where no other means for dealing with unwanted pregnancy exists than abortion. The film, ultimately, is less pro-choice and more pro-abortion as a result.
None of this is problematic, per se. People make movies that cater to certain political leanings all the time. Last year, for example, saw a veritable cavalcade of films release worldwide that each in their own way deal with wealth inequality; none of these come out in favor of the rich, unsurprisingly. Going beyond the specifics, films make inherent political statements, as all art does – it’s nearly impossible to make a movie without letting some political undertones slip in through the cracks. So for Robespierre and Slate to make a movie about the realities of abortion without ever for a second considering that there are alternatives open to Donna besides letting in a little air, or even fostering sustained introspection about the issue, is par for the artistic course.
Obvious Child’s narrow focus is purely intentional, rather than a fault on behalf of the filmmaking and acting duo. In the truest sense of the phrase, Obvious Child is an abortion movie. Unlike Juno and Knocked Up – probably the two contemporary films about abortion that best match Obvious Child in terms of tone, though not necessarily in purpose – Obvious Child exists to depict the life path of a woman living in America who decides to abort her pregnancy, wrought through reckless sexual indulgence with a total stranger following a night of excessive drinking and public urination. People have made movies about other means of dealing with unexpected pregnancies; Juno takes the route of adoption, while Knocked Up instead brings the child to term. And, admittedly, neither of these pictures go in-depth in exploring potential secondary options for their primary characters: Knocked Up accords a minimum of dialogue to discussing abortion and adoption before sweeping both under the rug, while in Juno, our plucky eponymous heroine almost goes through with the former before changing her mind at the last minute.
But if neither picture is that much more broad-minded than Obvious Child, they still hinge on choice, which makes them inherently more dramatic. There’s nothing inherently dramatic in Donna’s determination to have an abortion. She just does it. She doesn’t mull it over, or wrestle with it, or even consult a source that might provide an opposing view on her plan. In fact, when her friends, her mother, and, eventually, her baby daddy, Max, learn that she’s having an abortion, their reactions each ultimately affirm that she’s doing the right thing. The stakes here are decidedly low. By the time the film comes to a close, she’s well-rewarded for her agency over her own body and for her swift judgment.
Pro-lifers will find the movie infuriating as a result, though honestly, Obvious Child doesn’t seem to give a shit what they think. The movie is aimed at people – left-wing pro-choice people, primarily those in the 20-30 demographic – who already support a woman’s right to choose. It’s possible Robespierre is out to change some minds with her film, and it’s just as possible that by frankly depicting Donna’s struggle and how her choice ends up being the best choice for her, the film will succeed in doing just that. But Obvious Child has a core audience demographic that it’s tilted towards, and that demographic has already nodded along in approval to the film’s depiction of abortion.
Rightly so. If Obvious Child cares little and less about adoption and birth, it certainly cares greatly about recreating the experience of going through with abortion – and of living life under abortion’s looming shadow – with gentle, sympathetic clarity. This is not a joyful film. It is often funny (though the humor doesn’t really gel until about a quarter of the way through its running time), and occasionally it is genuinely human and warm; it has very clearly jerked a few tears here and there, and will continue to do so as it completes its theatrical run and finds a wider audience on home video. But more than anything else, Obvious Child is somber. It doesn’t make an ugly, comical pantomime out of abortion, or soften it into something easy or pleasant. It’s a blunt film. It has no use for poetics.
If that’s true, though, then it also has no use for standards of storytelling. Robespierre and Slate make their political point quite finely, but in making Obvious Child a straight-ahead abortion film – one in which the main character decides to have an abortion, schedules an abortion, and has an abortion – rather than an actual drama, they lessen their story’s impact. If any one element of the film gives it emotional oomph, it’s Slate’s performance, which is so human that it transcends politics; should any pro-life viewers turn their mind a bit on the subject matter, then the credit may well go to her for dramatizing Donna’s internal and external struggles through craft. Slate keeps the movie afloat. Robespierre’s writing, on the other hand, dodges reality. How many women, when faced with accidental pregnancy, so firmly, so swiftly, so stoically choose abortion? How many women actually have access to the kind of medical facilities needed to make abortion a viable option? The subject of cost even comes up in Obvious Child, when Donna first approaches her PCP about getting an abortion, but it barely even registers. It’s a blip on the radar. No sooner does it come up than it disappears. We’re told Donna is in dire straits, but we never actually feel that through anything beyond Slate’s acting.
Obvious Child succeeds within its narrow scope; it portrays the abortion process from start to finish earnestly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it succeeds as a story about choice, reproductive rights, and abortion’s place in cultural discourse, much less as a cohesive narrative. Together, Robespierre and Slate capture an insect in amber here, crystallizing part of the overarching debate that (for reasons unfathomable) remains ongoing among US citizens – but they don’t dig quite deep enough beyond scratching the surface.
Excellent write-up. I’ll have to check this out.