So Obvious Child, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a comedy about a woman who gets an abortion. It’s smart and funny and it got a lot of publicity around its realistic treatment of abortion, and it has been heralded by many as a feminist masterpiece for this reason. The film’s portrayal of abortion as a complicated real life experience rather than a hysterical political football is commendable and nuanced, and there have been some excellent pieces written here and here and in many other places about how important it is to have a movie like this in the public sphere. In fact I don’t know if I have seen any other movies where a character actually goes ahead with an abortion and isn’t punished for it in some way, and it certainly isn’t a common subject in comedy.
Let’s be real here, abortion is a hot button issue. And it’s hot for all sorts of reasons depending on where you sit on the political spectrum. But it is also a daily reality for many. And the reasons that people get abortions are varied and complex and uniquely personal and I love that Obvious Child takes care to tells this story in a gentle and sympathetic style that neither belittles or over-dramatises the situation.
I would also like to add that I kind of liked this movie for lots of other reasons as well. The primary one being that it’s funny, and smart, and actually kind of romantic. In fact, I might posit that this movie is a small flicker of hope in the otherwise arid landscape that has been romantic comedies of late. The women are layered, and intelligent! They get to tell jokes about the female experience (like yeasty panties and farts) rather than female performance (like fat-shaming jokes or waiting for a guy to call you). Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre originally made this as a short film and has now expanded it into a feature, she has said that she wanted to give the rom-com ‘best friend’ character a chance at the front (that’s the smart one who gets all the best lines but never any real story).
Rom-coms for the most part totally suck when it comes to women’s representation. Which is hilarious because they are movies that are deliberately marketed to women as ‘chick-flicks’, yet they are uninterested in actual lived female (or male really!) experiences, preferring to fall back on lazy one-dimensional gender roles and the ever-present fear of dying single and alone with 1000 cats for company. Thankfully, the character of Donna in Obvious Child tells not one single fat joke, never worries if the dude is going to call her and not once bemoans the fact that she might ‘die alone’. She is simply a real person, she gets her heart broken, loses her job, and drinks her way through her broken heart during which she has an ill-timed drunken one night stand resulting in a pregnancy that she is neither ready or able to provide for.
The male characters in this movie also get to break out of the usual rom-com rules for behaviour. With Max being just a genuinely nice guy, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes insensitive, but never behaving as if it is his right to have sex with or date Donna, and always respecting her choices. He also works in business rather than in advertising or on TV (which recently seem to be the only two choices for male leads in rom-coms).
I really was starting to think that the rom-com as a genre had become so conservative and restricted that they were just basically long marketing schemes for furniture and clothing labels disguised as movies. In fact, I watched ‘Friends with Kids’ as part of this project a few months ago and I was so disillusioned I couldn’t even muster up the energy to write about it on this blog. I think it was supposed to be sort of snarky new york humour, but mostly it felt like they were trying to sell me on a lifestyle i just don’t want and don’t understand. Having a child is hard – having a child with someone who doesn’t want to be with you is also hard! Why is this funny! Why would deliberately choose to do this! And all the long-term couples in that movie hated each other! What exactly is romantic or comedic about that? Gah. Anyway, Obvious Child is none of those things. It gets that life is complicated and sometimes romantic things are mundane little moments rather than giant running-through-airport, public-declarations-in-courtrooms type things.
However, a few caveats.
This is still a very middle class, privileged movie. Even though Donna loses her job in the film, has no insurance and an abortion costs $500.00, she spends about 12 seconds worrying about money, and never looks for another job, which is a little unrealistic. She also has incredibly supportive and functional parents, and caring and wise friends. These are resources which many women faced with the need to get an abortion, simply do not have. I know that is partly the point, it is supposed to be a movie where no one judges you for your choices, but maybe there could have been even just a little more discussion around the financial reality of getting an abortion, or having a job where you can get time off work to go to a clinic, or even just living in a place where you have access to a clinic.
There is also, not one person of colour featured in the entire cast. Which for me was a major letdown and the biggest flaw in the movie. Not one person of colour in Donna’s life? In New York? Come on now. Donna’s character is Jewish, so it can be argued that she herself represents a minority and therefore that box has been ‘ticked’, however, it would still have been nice to see a little more diversity in the cast. There were enough supporting characters that you could have had at least one other person from a non-western culture as a player and it feels a little bit lazy that the film did not manage to achieve this (I am not counting background actors here, I am looking for characters that are named and participate in the story in some way).
And, of course, all the characters are thin, able-bodied and good looking. They don’t wear fancy clothes or layers of make up so they do at least look fairly normal and not rom-com glamorous but again, this feels like basically just lazy casting. If you’re making a movie where one of the central themes is the representation of women, and you are unable to represent some kind of diversity in shapes, sizes and appearances in your cast then that is a real pity.
There is a character who is openly gay and he gets some great lines, although he also gets a little sidelined into the ‘gay-BFF’ box which is a wee bit stereotypical.
Despite these criticisms, for the most part Obvious Child is still a lovely movie. It’s got some excellent acerbic stand up comedy, along with many other funny moments and some sad moments too. It handles its controversial subject matter by removing the controversy in a deft and intelligent manner, and it delivers a pretty sweet romance too. For a debut feature it’s very masterful and I would say Gillian Robespierre is definitely one to watch.