Obvious Child Collapses under Pro-Choice Message
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2014 27 Jun
Editor's Note: The following review deals with subjects and beliefs that run counter to a Christian worldview. Reader discretion is advised.
DVD Release Date: October 7, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: June 6, 2014 limited; wider June 27
Rating: R (forstrong language and sexual content & themes)
Run Time: 84 min
Directors: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper
Obvious Child, the first feature from writer/director Gillian Robespierre, is the kind of auspicious debut you dream of seeing, as is the breakout lead performance from heretofore comic supporting actress Jenny Slate (TV’s Parks & Recreation and Saturday Night Live). It’s one of the best films of the year. Unfortunately, it also has one of the worst messages.
Dubbed "the abortion comedy," Obvious Child is about a young New York stand-up comic named Donna Stern (Slate) who, after a drunken one-night-stand, becomes pregnant and decides to abort the baby. The dramatic conflict (of this taboo-tackling romantic comedy) never involves if she’ll have the abortion or not; the decision is fairly immediate, and no one ever contests either the logic or ethics of her choice. It’s driven more by the weight of it all (buoyed by Robespierre’s and Slate’s sharp comedic voices), and if Donna will summon the courage to tell the father Max (Jake Lacy, TV’s The Office) with whom she’s begun to develop an actual relationship. The child’s fate is never in question; the stakes are simply of the "will they or won't they" variety common to the genre, albeit with much more on the line than heartbreak.
For as sympathetic as the film is toward Donna, her decision, and the circumstances surrounding it (which aren’t as remotely complicated as most unwanted crisis pregnancies), Obvious Child is not activist in nature. It doesn’t aggressively champion the Pro-Choice position, nor does it aggressively belittle the Pro-Life philosophy. Indeed, Pro-Life isn’t even a thought in this world; it’s simply a non-factor. Donna does briefly wonder if she’ll end up regretting her decision, but that concern is quickly assuaged by her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, Veronica Mars) who, having had her own abortion as a teenager, assures Donna she'll have no lingering remorse.
That comfort is indicative of Robespierre’s one major storytelling flaw: the idealistic supportive cocoon she creates for Donna. Not only are her closest friends extremely gracious and understanding but so is her mother, and all are quick to calm emotional and financial anxieties. To top it off, Donna seems to have lucked out with the father as well, a man who basically ends up being The Best Guy Ever. It all falls short of being an out-and-out Planned Parenthood fantasy (it’s too resolved in capturing the nuances of life to be that), but the safety net afforded Donna sure pulls a lot of punches. It’s a best-case scenario that borders on propaganda, and the cavalier humor used to diffuse tension does eventually go too far in making light of the situation. Nevertheless, this would-be tale of Feminist Self-Empowerment has the undeniable irony of a heroine that is (as with most women caught in this situation) resigned to just one decision because she feels so completely powerless.
Consequently, where you land on the whole abortion issue (full disclosure: I’m passionately pro-life) will largely dictate how you respond to this movie. With a personal rather than preachy approach, it’s not going to convert anyone from where they currently stand (unless, perhaps, they’re on the fence or haven’t given it much thought before… which, practically speaking, likely makes them pro-choice by default).
Yet while it won’t change anyone’s convictions, Obvious Child is effective in evoking our sympathies. As cold as the synopsis may sound, the actual portrayal is fleshed out with dimension and authenticity, and even the heart of the pro-life viewer is genuinely compelled to consider “How would I deal with this situation if it involved a friend or child?” – not just morally or circumstantially, but relationally.
That emotional involvement is earned because of the care and character-detail that Slate and Robespierre go into right from the start. The entire first act is patient in letting us get to know Donna and her circle of friends; the pregnancy – rather than being some pre-credit plot hook – doesn’t come into play until it serves as a transition to the second act. So while there are actually a lot of laughs to be had here (and smart ones at that), this isn’t a thin plot-driven exercise used to cycle out jokes but, rather, the exploration of a likeable but irresponsible young woman.
Indeed, the characterizations are so rich – both in dialogue and performance – that Obvious Child captures the truly genuine aura of Real Life, more so than most films with comparable aspirations. As a result, this movie serves as a portal into the lives of the Millennial Generation. Yes, the sense of humor and perspective is uniquely Robespierre’s, but there’s no question it’s as articulate an expression of Millennial values and mindsets as anything that’s been produced (usurping HBO’s Girls, the previous crown-holder of that title, whose creative force Lena Dunham produces a product too sympathetic to narcissism to be considered universal). Most Millennials would likely watch Obvious Child and walk away feeling that the film really “got” them, even if they disagreed with the pro-choice slant.
To express and capture something so definitive is no small feat, and it makes Obvious Child a lapel-grabbing declaration that Robespierre and Slate are women to be reckoned with. Robespierre crafts her film with such intention that this can’t be sloughed off as some improvised low budget indie that found itself in the editing room. This is a storyteller with a point of view, a take on life that is well-observed, whose humor is both sophisticated and accessible, and has a specific (even if simple) visual style. And Slate, well, in this one single performance she vaults herself from “Oh, I’ve seen her before” relative obscurity to someone who will be sought after and written for. She’s more than a good comic actress; she’s a serious talent.
Yet for a pro-lifer like myself, the joy of seeing such talent so confidently emerge – even fully-formed – does not make the pro-choice sympathies an easy morning-after pill to swallow. In fact, the more you think about it, the film’s considerable charms collapse under the weight of what’s being condoned – right down to a final moment that is meant to be hopeful but is actually disturbing. Suffice it to say, I greatly anticipate the next efforts from both Slate and Robespierre that don’t categorically defy a moral conviction that goes to the very core of my being.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Beer, wine, and liquor are consumed both casually and excessively. A few scenes of drunkenness, one that leads to a sexual encounter.
- Language/Profanity: The F-word and S-word are used regularly throughout. Three B-words, two C-words, and a few A-words are used. The Lord’s name is used in vain a couple of times. The term “vagina” is used several times, along with several crass sexual terms and slang throughout. Scatological slang is also used.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: There is no nudity in the film, and no actual sexual conduct is seen, but there is passionate kissing, scenes of a woman only in her underwear, a scene of intimate romantic activity on a bed, undressing, and a man and woman underneath bed sheets (it’s implied they’ve had sex). Sex and sexual-related jokes are common to Donna’s stand-up routine, and sexual humor (with a variety of crass sexual slang, and references to crass sexual activity) is also used in casual conversations. One of the characters is a gay friend. Two references to masturbation. A condom is seen.
- Violence/Other: No traditional violence. Abortion themes are prominent throughout, and the climatic scene involves a trip to the abortion clinic, the beginning of the procedure, and Donna sitting post-op with fellow women who’ve also received abortions. A man and woman pee on a public sidewalk at night. A woman sits on a toilet and pees while carrying on a conversation.
Publication date: June 27, 2014
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."