Romantic comedies are rife with easily-identifiable tropes, and Obvious Child, smartly written and directed by feature-film first timer Gillian Robespierre, hits them all. [Here come SPOILERS.] There's an attractive male and an attractive lady, with one of them getting dumped early on in the plot. There's the "meet-cute" in which the attractive male makes the attractive lady's acquaintance in a banter-ridden bar scene. There's some conflict wedging the would-be couple apart, but there's hope that, like most rom-coms, in the end love will prevail and happy music will trill over the credits. The difference here, though, is that the film's main plot point doesn't center on, say, the ethics of prostitution or the grating sound of an Internet dial-up tone. Here, the female protagonist gets an abortion, and it's kind of a big deal.
Not that the abortion itself is such a big deal, but we'll get to that in a minute—first, the plot. Donna (played by Jenny Slate, and spectacularly so) is a 20-something Brooklynite and sometime standup comic who gets brutally dumped and laid off from her bookstore job all at once. Like any good Williamsburg resident, Donna drowns her blues in red wine, rum (should be whiskey) and Brooklyn Lager, drunk dials her ex half a million times and, after a particularly bad night, ends up having a one-night-stand with hunky square Max (Jake Lacy), complete with a half-naked dance-off to the titular Paul Simon song.
A few weeks later, Donna misses her period, she has "boob sore" and a pregnancy test, taken with best friend Nelly (Gaby Hoffman) at her side, comes up positive. Donna goes to Planned Parenthood and schedules an abortion for the cruel calendar date of February 14th. But this a romantic comedy, remember, and so one-night-stand Max saunters back into her life. No spoilers here, but you can probably figure out the rest.
Now for the real meat. Robespierre and Slate teamed up to transform Obvious Child from a low-budget short to a feature film, and they've both said in interviews that the film isn't a movie about abortion. And it isn't. It's a movie about a woman who has an abortion, and her story isn't meant to function within some greater pro and anti-choice battle (we're retiring the term "pro-life" here). Unlike in other films centered around an unexpected pregnancy, like Knocked Up and Juno, Donna doesn't agonize over whether or not she should undergo the procedure. She believes she's neither emotionally nor financially prepared for motherhood, and that's that—she can hardly spare the $500 for the abortion, telling the Planned Parenthood doctor, "That's almost my whole rent."
Aside from the toll the abortion's going to take on Donna's bank account, though, it's not the end of the world. It turns out that the two women closest to her, her mother and Nelly, have had abortions, and if that sounds too coincidental, research shows that about one in 3 American women have had an abortion, so do with that what you will. Donna does ask Nelly if she thinks about it, which Nelly does sometimes but never regrets it. When Donna's lying on the operating table about to do the deed, there are a couple tears, but those appear to form in a "How did I get here?" sort of way, and not in a "Dear Lord, I'm killing my precious unborn baby," sort of way. Donna's going to have an abortion and she's going to move on with her life, like so many American women do.
That's what's so refreshing about Obvious Child—it strips away all the taboos and evils associated with abortion and turns it into a thing women do, because sometimes they have to. At a screening of the film on Monday, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue pointed out that 9 percent of abortions portrayed in films result in death, even though the actual abortion death rate in America is around 0 percent. A recent Slate post pointed out that even film and television characters who think about having abortions seem to die, or suffer otherwise severe mental and physical health consequences as a result.
Deaths are more common in countries without access to legal and safe abortions, which is one of the reasons the recent war on women's health is so distressing in the United States. It's also one of the reasons Donna's story is so important. Like you (possibly), Donna is a smart, spunky Brooklynite who's quick with the comebacks. She likes fart jokes, and spends the first few minutes of the film cracking wise about vaginal discharge onstage. She goes to dive bars, has a sassy gay friend and drinks red wine like it's water. And she got dumped, got sad, slept with a stranger in a drunken haze and misplaced the condom, or something. It's happened to me, it's probably happened to you, and if it hasn't yet, get ready.
More than likely, you or someone you know has had a pregnancy scare, spent too much money on a scary test and spent three harrowing minutes running through all possible scenarios and future costs—both financial and emotional—that might be incurred should that evil peestick turn up positive. Some people are lucky and Donna isn't, but because Donna lives in New York City and not El Salvador or, say, Michigan or Oklahoma, she has the ability to make a choice, and in Obvious Child, she makes that choice just casually enough to keep it from being some sort of life-scarring, revolutionary event. Which, in the end, is exactly why it's so revolutionary in the first place.
Obvious Child opens today at the Angelika Film Center.