Gillian Robespierre is making waves with her debut feature film Obvious Child, which tackles a serious subject – abortion – in a less-than-serious style: the romantic comedy.
An adaptation of her 2009 short film of the same name, the movie tells the story of struggling comedian Donna (played by real-life comedian Jenny Slate), who terminates an unplanned pregnancy after a one-night stand. But it is more than an abortion story: Funny and clever, it's a heartfelt tale about friendship, family and love.
In a telephone interview from New York, the director talked about making a rom-com, and finding humour in a topic many people consider off-limits.
Romantic comedies get a bad rap for being sentimental, sexist and not funny. Why did you want tackle this genre?
I've admired rom-coms since I first started watching movies. But I do think we got to a point where the leading ladies were starting to get a little exhausting, and weren't being as funny or as smart as they once were, or could be. …
Often the jokes are written for the best friend's role. Then those characters leave and they're not back for 20 minutes, even though they have the life and story you want to follow. In a way, we [story collaborators Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm] took that secondary character and made her the lead of Obvious Child.
Did you want to reclaim
We wanted to modernize them and develop a character that had the tone I and my friends have. Someone who looks like us, sounds like us and is going through a relatable late-20s growth spurt: being dumped, finding confidence, unplanned pregnancy, wondering what you're going to do with your life when you thought you'd be in one place and you're not – and being okay with that.
Can you talk about using comedy to destigmatize abortion?
The main thing was telling the story in Donna's voice. She's a stand-up comedian and so she sees life through a comedic lens. But it was really important for us toggle between joking around and the more serious moments.
That's really what life is like: You can be going through something really big, crack a joke, and then it doesn't feel so heavy any more.
Is this a 'feel-good' abortion movie?
That's the shorthand journalists have been using, but I think that takes away from what the movie is really about. I'm excited that the word "abortion" is being used and talked about, but it feels like it's making the movie a little smaller.
When I saw the film, Jenny Slate spoke beforehand and said she was looking forward to a time when a woman having an abortion in a movie isn't a big deal. Do you feel the same way?
Totally. Millions of women around the world face unplanned pregnancies every year and each story and each experience is different. We wanted to tell Donna's story in a space that was free of shame. … I'm excited for the conversations that are going to start and the movies that are going to follow Obvious Child – if a character is going to have an abortion, just fucking do it!
Are you working on anything now?
Liz Holmes and I are going to write a movie this summer. It's a comedy with a divorce. Right now it's called Untitled Divorce Comedy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.