In a breezy and seemingly effortless way, “Obvious Child” accomplishes something difficult. It’s a comedy with abortion at its center that doesn’t fall into about a dozen traps that might have swallowed it up. For starters, it’s not crass. It takes into account the seriousness of the matter, but doesn’t make abortion into a tragedy, either.
Nor does it go the other way and pretend this is something to be happy about. Its feminism is implicit, but the movie doesn’t present itself as some kind of secular equivalent of a moral lesson. It’s not callous or weepy or preachy – or self-consciously not those things. It’s a naturally told story.
It’s also a movie that’s been sitting on the table waiting for somebody to make it, a reflection of something experienced by millions of women. Yet until someone made “Obvious Child,” who knew it could be done? Apparently writer-director Gillian Robespierre knew, and she did it by remembering something incredibly, ridiculously obvious: If you’re going to make a movie about a woman having an abortion, the movie’s not about the abortion – it’s about the woman.
As Donna, a 28-year-old aspiring comedian who finds out she’s pregnant, Jenny Slate has one of the best roles any American actress is going to find this year. (Most years, there are about 10 showcases this rich, and Meryl Streep gets one of them.) Slate responds with a performance of such charm and immediacy that, within five minutes, it feels as though we’ve always known her, that she has been around for years.
We first meet her through her stand-up act. Donna (Slate) is onstage at a comedy dive in New York, saying things about herself that you just don’t expect to hear from a female comic. She talks about her flatulence and what the inside of her underwear looks like after a long day. She also talks about her sex life with her boyfriend. Two things happen immediately: We understand that this is someone with no filter, and we like that. But we also understand why her boyfriend breaks up with her that night. Flatulence jokes are no more appealing in a female comic than a male.
By the time the pregnancy arrives, it’s just one more thing to throw into the mix, along with Donna’s romantic problems, her financial worries and her strained relationship with her exacting and accomplished mother (Polly Draper). It’s clear to anybody watching that Donna isn’t ready for adulthood, much less parenthood, and that there really is no way that such a woman, in real life at least, wouldn’t get an abortion. But dozens of previous Hollywood movies make us brace for the moment where the movie shifts from reality to fantasy, from honesty to phoniness.
Wisely, Robespierre doesn’t locate the climax of “Obvious Child” in the abortion itself or any decision surrounding it. The movie remains focused on Donna, her relationship with herself and her interaction with her circle of friends and family. If the movie has a political statement, it’s a subtle one, located in the movie’s structure.
There is a small weakness in “Obvious Child.” In the three stand-up interludes in the film, only the first – in which we meet Donna – fully succeeds. In the second, she supposedly bombs, talking about her recent breakup; and in the third, she supposedly hits it out of the park, talking about her pregnancy. But in fact, the breakup monologue is riveting – it’s a train wreck, but great theater that no one would walk out on. And the pregnancy monologue isn’t funny at all, despite cuts to audience members laughing it up.
It’s a small false note in a movie that’s otherwise as honest as they come.