Characters in movies don’t often have abortions, and when they do it’s dramatic, or sad, or shocking. Cast your mind back to Cabaret, The Godfather: Part II and Dirty Dancing. In contemporary comedy, inconvenient pregnancies end with births – think Juno and Knocked Up. And so, for good or for ill, Obvious Child will inevitably be known as the abortion comedy, the movie brave enough to show a central character who, with neither long hesitation nor grave consequences, does what many other woman do.
But the fact that its realism is refreshing and brave doesn’t mean Obvious Child should get a free pass from critics. In truth, despite its honesty, this is a flawed little film, its low comedy never funny enough to justify its crudeness.
Written and directed by newcomer Gillian Robespierre (who previously directed a shorter version of the same title), it revolves around the talents of comic Jenny Slate (formerly of Saturday Night Live). She is cast as Donna Stern, second-hand bookstore employee by day, standup comedian by night. In her painfully honest and often scatological monologues performed in a Brooklyn club, Donna recounts the trials of being young and female: The movie opens with her reflections on what the inside of a woman’s underpants look like by the end of the day. Before long, she is embarrassing herself in front of a stunned audience as she rants about the boyfriend who dumped her in favour of her friend.
There follows a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), a square but sweet young guy lucky enough to have walked into the bar after the breakup monologue. And then there follows a pregnancy. So Donna prepares to get an abortion, with the support of her loving friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, who plays the crazy Caroline on the TV series Girls) and Joey (Slate’s real-life comedy partner Gabe Liedman). Donna’s only dilemma is whether she should tell Max, a straight-ahead guy with a surprisingly deep well of patience for an erratic woman he had sex with once – and a surprisingly convenient ability to keep bumping into her. (In the role, the guileless Lacy does an excellent imitation of a guy who doesn’t quite know what he is doing in this relationship, or this movie.)
Robespierre and Slate are reaching for the kind of cringe-making humour that animates Lena Dunham’s Girls, the ultimate satire of the millennial female’s angst, but they don’t achieve it. Fart jokes just aren’t that funny, and once the main character has finished embarrassing herself, it transpires that neither actor nor director have any larger satirical point to make. Donna is far too loveable a character, Slate is too pretty a face and Robespierre is too limited a writer for Obvious Child to rise above conventional romantic plotting or to make its low comedy meaningfully transgressive.
The abortion plot may be commercially risky, but Robespierre has little appetite for artistic risk. By the time Donna is laughing hysterically as Max steps in dog poo, you’ll have forgotten you ever thought this movie was refreshing.