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Obvious Child

*heavy, heavy sigh* Abortion.

The concept is so hugely controversial that just saying the word is practically an invitation for heated debate. But it’s unavoidable when talking about today’s film, so let’s get to it.

The central question of the abortion issue concerns when an embryo becomes a human being (or, in other words, when abortion becomes murder). In turn, this begs the question of what it means to be human and when we develop that trait. When you get down to it, what makes us so much more special than any other collection of cells? What makes human life so precious that we have a moral imperative to protect it, especially when we place such a lesser importance on animal, bacterial, and viral life? Hell, there are times when we don’t seem to place a very big importance on the lives of full-grown humans, so why should we care about a “human” who isn’t even born yet?

Then there’s the matter of free will. Not just the free will that the fetus may or may not have — another contentious question of great importance to this debate — but the free will of the mother. We can’t force any unwilling person to give blood or bodily tissues, no matter how fatally ill a recipient may be, so why should an unwilling woman be forced to incubate a fetus for the better part of a year? Moreover, if the mother is somehow unable to safely give birth, then would an abortion be justified? If a child is conceived by rape, would aborting the child be punishment for the father’s crime?

That isn’t even getting started on the role (if any) that contraceptives play in all of this. Heck, is it even possible to abort a fetus that doesn’t exist yet?

I honestly don’t mean to preach on the subject or to sound like I’m absolutely for or against abortion. This is hardly the forum for it, and really, why would you care? No, the point I’m trying to make is that we should be encouraging debate on the topic. “Abortion” is a deceptively simple name given to a wide host of complicated philosophical questions that get right to the heart of who we are and where we come from as human beings. From the nature of free will to the value of human life, it simply isn’t possible to live as an emotionally mature adult without coming to a justifiable belief about these topics. That’s how huge and important these questions are: Simply by giving abortion some serious debate and contemplation, we can grow and mature as people.

Obvious Child, however, takes a very different approach to the subject.

The film was exec-produced by comedian Jenny Slate, who also stars as Donna Stern. She (the actress and the character both, I imagine) is a young woman who sorts through her bodily issues, relationship matters, and other problems by getting onstage and joking about them. We first meet Donna doing just that before her long-time boyfriend admits that he’s been cheating on her. Granted, she did just talk about his penis to an audience of strangers at some dive bar, but she’s a stand-up comic. Gotta know what you’re dating, amirite?

Anyway, Donna also has a day job working at some hole-in-the-wall bookstore that’s been there for about thirty years. Until the landlord decides to shut the bookstore down for whatever reason. So now poor Donna has to spend the next few weeks packing up the store until she’s finally out of a job.

To recap, Donna has just been dumped by her cheating boyfriend and she’s gotten laid off. To cope, she gets blind stinking drunk and has a one-night-stand with the first halfway-decent stranger who’ll sit still long enough. Like you do.

Cut to a few weeks later, when Donna realizes that she’s pregnant. She freaks out for a couple of days, then makes preparations to have an abortion. The remaining hour or so takes place during the two weeks until the procedure is actually set to happen. Which is Valentine’s Day, ironically enough.

First of all, this film comes to us from writer/director/exec-producer Gillian Robespierre, here adapting a short film she made in 2009. Funnily enough, Jenny Slate was the star of that short film as well. But the kicker is that this film is Robespierre’s debut. Yes, Robespierre made a romantic comedy about abortion for her debut picture. You’ve got to respect such a level of chutzpah.

That aside, it bears mentioning that the fetus never factors into the conversation. At all. There’s talk about several years from now, when Donna might potentially regret the decision and wonder what might have been, but that’s it. There’s never a point when the embryo is referred to as anything but an abortion. I understand how that might be a dealbreaker for some, but the filmmakers obviously aren’t concerned with the question of whether a fetus (and one that’s only a few weeks old, at that) counts as a human being.

No, the focus of this movie is kept squarely on Donna. The plot focuses on Donna beating herself up for making such a dumb mistake, Donna worrying about whether she should tell her loved ones and what will happen if she does, Donna asking about the social repercussions and the physical trauma of actually going through with an abortion, et cetera, et cetera. It’s some very heavy stuff, but Slate does a surprisingly good job of seeing it through.

It helps that she’s one of those comedians who makes jokes about her personal tragedies. She has a lot of practice at spinning embarrassing moments and tremendous anxiety into poignant, self-deprecating humor, and it’s a skill she uses to marvelous effect throughout the movie. Even when she’s offstage and talking with another character, those quips keep coming. More importantly, they’re delivered in a way that feels off-the-cuff and unscripted, which makes the jokes funnier and provides a sense of authenticity. That last part is especially crucial: If Slate couldn’t deliver a main character worth any emotional connection, or if she felt too much like a Hollywood construct, this whole premise would’ve been dead in the water (see also: Ellen Page in Juno, which this film probably owes its existence to).

Donna’s jokes play an especially huge role in this film, because they keep her heart open and exposed at all times. We always know exactly what she’s thinking, which makes it easier to sympathize with the character and share this emotional journey she’s going on. This would be a lazy device in any other movie, but so much effort is put into writing and delivering these jokes that the approach works. Granted, the comedy tends to lean toward the juvenile (sex jokes, bodily humor, etc.) but that kind of goes with the abortion subject. Like I always say: Biology is not for the prudish.

Though Slate more than earns her keep as the film’s lead, her male costar merits discussion as well. Jake Lacy plays Max, the guy who went and got Donna pregnant. He was only supposed to be a stranger and a one-night-stand, except that he keeps showing up. And he really seems interested in starting a relationship.

What makes things complicated with Max is that he’s perfect. Too perfect. He’s blandly, boringly, way-too-good-to-possibly-be-true perfect. Thus Donna is stuck with a dilemma, whether to take this potentially great relationship and risk that he isn’t another asshole ex-boyfriend waiting to happen. And of course, there’s the abortion to think about. Does he have any right to know, and if so, how does she break the news? Is it even possible to strike up a relationship when it starts with conceiving an aborted child?

There are a lot of complicated issues in this film to deal with, but let’s be clear: As far as unwanted pregnancies go, this is very much a “best case” scenario. I’m loathe to go into spoilers about how Donna’s friends and family react — to say nothing of Max — but suffice to say that Donna’s problems with getting an abortion are pretty much all inflicted by her own worrying and self-doubt. She never even has to bother with a mob of protesters outside the Planned Parenthood, for God’s sake. There are no STDs to worry about, there’s no overbearing authority figure looking down on her, there’s no rape or incest involved. Donna even has a couple of female acquaintances who’ve had abortions themselves (both before and after it was legal) to lean on for support.

This would all be questionable enough, but then there’s the matter of the $500 cost for the procedure. There’s a moment when Donna makes it clear that she doesn’t have that kind of money — especially when she’s about to lose her job — and her doctor spends time a bit of time talking about payment plans. Then the matter is never brought up again. Yes, the film even glosses over that potential drawback of getting an abortion, even after explicitly making such a big deal about it. BAD MOVE.

With all of that said, it bears repeating that Donna doesn’t go through this completely unscathed. The decision to have an abortion is not one that’s made lightly, and it isn’t lost on our main character that her one night of unprotected sex with a total stranger could have (and by all rights, should have) gone far worse. She also doesn’t have to go through any drawbacks of pregnancy, and that’s really what it comes down to.

Ultimately, the film takes a step back on the abortion issue, arguing that the procedure doesn’t have to be as complex or as reviled as we so often make it. The filmmakers don’t portray unprotected sex as a sin, but as a mistake to be learned from. Likewise, abortion isn’t portrayed as some horrible affair — much less the murder of a child — but as a trauma from which a woman can come back wiser and stronger. Thus the film makes a “pro-choice” argument not by preaching to its audience or mocking the “pro-life” movement, but by looking at the issue from a detached and apolitical perspective, without even asking the question of whether a fetus counts as a person. As to whether such treatment of the issue is fair and/or responsible, well, I leave that to you.

On a final note, it’s really obvious that this 84-minute movie was adapted from a 23-minute short film, because there is so much padding here. The padding is all very funny, don’t get me wrong, but most of the scenes are very long on comedy and very short on plot. Richard Kind and David Cross are two excellent cases in point: Both seasoned comedic veterans who are basically given extended cameos, such that they could both be cut from the film entirely and very little would be lost. Compare them to Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman, both of whom get way more jokes and plot impact as the “best friend” roles.

Still, the MVP of the supporting cast is unquestionably Polly Draper. She plays Donna’s mother as a very practical and forward-thinking person, in sharp contrast to her bookseller-by-day/comedian-by-night daughter. When they talk about Donna’s career and future goals, it’s almost like they’re speaking in different languages. But then Donna goes to her mom for some desperately-needed support, and mommy comes through big time. Sure, the scene might have been cut for time, but so much emotional impact would’ve been lost that I have no idea why anyone would want to.

Obvious Child addresses the abortion issue in a rather unorthodox way that’s sure to rankle some, but the topic is so polarizing that there was never a chance to make everyone happy anyway. It’s still a movie that talks about an important and disturbing subject in some direct and creative ways, and we need more courage like that. More impressively, the film works as an eccentric romcom through sincere and vulnerable performances, especially from Jenny Slate. It’s her bold and inappropriately honest brand of comedy that really makes this film work.

If you’re open-minded on the subject of abortion and R-rated bodily humor, you’ll find something in this film to like.

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