‘Obvious Child’ – an Abortion Rom-Com: That Happened


ColumnObvious Child” is the best abortion rom-com since… Uh, hey, it’s an abortion rom-com! PS: This column is chock-full of spoilers.

Calendar item: “Wednesday 7:30 – Abortion movie with Emily.” As you can see, I have been eagerly anticipating going to see “Obvious Child” since I first heard rumblings about the existence of a movie featuring an abortion that didn’t come with a side of payback in the form of shame, death, regret or some other life-ruining consequence for the woman.

In brief, here’s the plot: 27-year-old Donna (Jenny Slate) gets cheated on, dumped, drunk and has a really fun looking sex-capade/dance party/bongo drum playing session that results in an unwanted pregnancy.

The problem with knowing you’re going to see an abortion movie is that you spend the whole time waiting for the abortion—kind of like when “127 Hours” came out and we all waited for that one scene.

It was an odd distraction to be eagerly awaiting the abortion moments: When will she find out? What will happen when she goes to Planned Parenthood? When will she tell people? Will she tell the guy? When will she go in for the abortion?

Waiting for those pivotal moments, it would have been easy to miss all that happened in between, and that would have been a shame because “Obvious Child” is much more than a movie about abortion. It is a movie about friendship and storytelling.

One of my favorite moments is when Donna’s best friend, Nellie (played by Gabby Hoffman), arrives at her apartment to find her a wasted crying mess and Donna makes a lesbian birthright joke and then tells her she doesn’t have to sleep in the room because she’s about to fart it up. These are your real friends, people.

Donna’s role as a stand-up comic is central to the plot and to understanding her as a character. Drawing her material from real life and holding nothing back (from what underpants really look like at the end of a long day to countless fart jokes), she leaves nothing on the table. This approach brings up a question I am constantly fascinated by: What stories are ours to tell? As a writer, I say all of them. Everything is material. As a comic, Donna feels the same way. But, this approach has its consequences.

Early in the movie, her boyfriend complains about her talking about their relationship on stage—before dumping her in the bathroom while checking his phone in one of the most honest 20-something breakup scenes ever. Honest because he leads into the conversation totally dishonestly, blaming her stand-up for the breakup when really it’s that he’s sleeping with a friend of hers, news he reveals after making her feel like it’s her fault.

What’s great about this scene, and Donna in particular, is that she says what we all want to say in the moment, not when she thinks of the perfect reply five minutes or five days later. We know that in some ways this is because she is in a movie, but we believe that the character is that quick and smart—and the kind of exhibitionist who will say anything about herself and anyone else to get a laugh. But that tendency to just put thing out there and say what most people won’t is also how she processes her world.

Her real friends understand that and like her for it, and we do too. Throughout the movie, we’re unsure about where the new guy, Max, will fall on the spectrum. He seems to appreciate her brand of wacky, but when we’re introduced to him, he comes off as a bit of a square.

When she finally tells him about the pregnancy and her appointment for the abortion (from the stage in a bar before he’s even taken his hat off and gotten comfortable), he has a fairly understandable reaction given that he has just received intensely personal news in a public setting. He leaves. But, unlike the shitty ex, he realizes that her stand-up is how she is processing what is happening. He’s on the team and good things happen next.

What “Obvious Child” also accomplishes is a commentary on how we think other people think about abortion if “we” are liberal, privileged urbanites. Donna isn’t sure how to talk to the woman at the clinic and then realizes it’s best to just say what you want.

She worries what her highly-accomplished mom will think. Mostly because when you tell your mom something, it becomes real in a different way. That conversation turns out to be a good way for the filmmaker Gillian Robespierre to remind us what happens when abortion is illegal without hitting us over the head. (We were promised a rom-com, not a documentary, after all!)

There’s also the moment when Donna asks Max if he is okay with her having an abortion—but not in a way that implies his opinion will change her mind—it’s more of a get-to-know-ya conversation a bit late in the game.

In some ways, for the pro-choice set, “Obvious Child” is like “The West Wing” for liberal politicos. It’s a reflection of the way we wish it was for everyone. If we don’t place too much pressure on “Obvious Child” to be more than one woman’s story about her abortion, we can appreciate that when women have access and support, abortion is part of life.

We’re left with an ideal rom-com ending. It’s sweet, it’s open-ended and it’s full of possibility.

That Happened is Libby Lowe’s weekly column for EcoSalon analyzing media, news and pop culture through a feminist lens. Keep in touch with Libby @LibbyLowe.

Images: Obvious Child

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