As high concepts go, an “abortion romcom” isn’t exactly a likely one. But that’s how Obvious Child has become known by press and audiences alike. And it turns out that making light of a safe, extremely common medical procedure – that is more usually played on screen as a dangerous, life-ruining, traumatic experience – is a winning formula. The feature film debut of the US writer-director Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child has earned rave reviews and sparked discussion in the US, and should do the same over here when it opens in a couple of weeks. Rightly so: it is one of the smartest movies of 2014, and certainly one of the freshest, funniest romantic comedies to hit cinemas in years.
Jenny Slate plays Donna, a Brooklynite comedian in her late twenties (Slate herself is a 32-year-old New York stand-up, and the film’s hilarious comedy club sequences reflect her own confessional style). In the film’s opening scenes, we see Donna’s life coming apart at the seams. First her boyfriend leaves her for another girl, then she loses her job in a book store, and waaaay over-shares her pain in a disastrous stand-up set. But then she meets a boy, Max (played by the very lovely Jake Lacy). He’s not her type; he’s a bit preppy and straight-laced. But he’s cute, and worthy of a drunken one-night stand, which – you guessed it – results in an unwanted pregnancy. Donna can in no way deal with this, so she swiftly, simply, books herself in for an abortion. The soonest available date is 14 February – this is still fiction, after all, and not without its cute, if painful, ironies – but Valentine’s day turns out to be kinda perfect ….
What’s great about Robespierre’s story is that the abortion is simply one unfortunate thing that happens in one girl’s life; it doesn’t define her. Donna isn’t blasé or flip about terminating a pregnancy, but she is decisive and confident in her choice. This is many women’s actual experience (one in three women in Britain and America will have had an abortion by the time they’re 45) yet it’s one we have never really seen on screen.
“We wanted to make it judgement-free, stigma-free, regret-free, but also still have the character go through those complex feelings,” explains 36-year-old Robespierre. “We also wanted it to be a bit more realistic to women’s actual experience. Unplanned pregnancy is a narrative in many films, and it seems like it always ends in childbirth or adoption or a miscarriage. Those are all possible outcomes, but we felt we had never seen something that had more authenticity, where the character chooses to have the procedure and it doesn’t define their life.”
“This movie is not an agenda movie, not just a vehicle for protecting women’s reproductive rights.
While responses to the film have focused on its apparent invention of what might have been deemed an oxymoronic subgenre, “the abortion romcom”, in fact Obvious Child deserves serious props for everything else that it is. If the abortion doesn’t define Donna, nor does it truly define Obvious Child – although good luck explaining that to the pro-lifers picketing some American screenings.
It’s a film comedy with a genuinely hilarious female lead (one who makes a lot of fart jokes, and is way more gross-out than the guy) which is still all too rare, sadly. It’s a wittily authentic look at the much discussed Millennial twentysomething sense of ennui. The relationships Donna has, not only with her two best friends but also her parents, are fleshed out, subtle and convincing: romance is not the only important thing in this girl’s life. And the romance itself, while it has very sweet moments, is also allowed to be awkward, mired in miscommunication. Ultimately, however, Obvious Child portrays two people really trying to be decent to one another, which is pretty rare in the hyperactive worlds of film comedies. Or, indeed, in anything exploring the subject of abortion.
The film originated from a short that Robespierre made in 2009, which also starred Slate as Donna. Both the character and story felt unique to Slate. “The story was one that I hadn’t encountered in a script, or even in a movie that I’d seen, and the character of Donna is complex in ways that made me feel revved up for a challenge,” Slate comments. “This movie is not an agenda movie, not just a vehicle for protecting women’s reproductive rights. We wanted to tell a story that we related to; that made us laugh and cry and connected us and our audience to a very common, modern female experience that has been pushed out of an important conversation.”
Both Slate and Robespierre are huge fans of the romantic-comedy genre, and Obvious Child is a tribute to its conventions as well as a subversion of them. “I love romantic comedies, I live and breathe for them … we’re tipping our hat to that genre, we’re just twisting it,” enthuses Robespierre, who also confesses that she likes nothing more than to spend a Sunday morning in bed with romcoms by Nicole Holofcener, early Woody Allen, and “everything by Nora Ephron … it’s like being with an old friend”. “Old” being the operative word, however: many of Robespierre’s favourites are of a certain vintage, and she acknowledges that the genre has had issues in recent years, and been flattened out by glossily bland smooch-by-numbers studio fare. “I think [today’s] studio romcoms are lacking actual funny leading ladies,” Robespierre continues. “I always really like the best friend character in those movies, and I always wish we could follow her life, because it seems a lot more complex and funny and exciting. Then the leading lady comes back on screen and I’m like ‘Nooo, get outta here!’.” Robespierre kept that complexity in mind when writing: Donna is neither blandly perfect nor adorably “quirky”. She’s messy and good fun, she’s immature and intelligent, she over-shares and she cares.
And for romcom fans, there is wider cause for celebration: Robespierre is not the only director to want to give the genre a shot in the arm. Indies such as Ruby Sparks, Frances Ha, Drinking Buddies and Enough Said have put their own slant on the genre in recent years, while Obvious Child is at the crest of a very promising wave of films that will arrive over the next few months, including Daniel Radcliffe in What If and Lynn Shelton’s Laggies with Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell (see page opposite).
“There seems to be an interesting community of storytellers coming into the light right now,” agrees Slate. “I think we can, and should, look forward to more satisfying films of this nature.” She, too, is an unabashed cheerleader for the romcom; clearly neither of these women see these types of films as guilty pleasures, but as some of the best entertainment the cinema can offer.
“Obvious Child has all of the classic traits that a romcom offers: laughs, sweet kisses, dancing, yearning, two people discovering each other,” confirms Slate. “The difference is that Donna’s issues and problems are real. She’s not just trying to save a bakery, she doesn’t have cutesy problems. I think recent romcoms have leaned in the direction of those ‘cutesy’ problems because people are afraid that if a woman genuinely has heavier issues to deal with, it will be a downer and she will not be watchable. I think our movie really disproves this silly line of thought!”
'Obvious Child' (15) is on general release from 29 Aug