by Philip Price
You can tell a lot about a person’s intelligence level by what they laugh at. There is a lot of laughing to be had in “Obvious Child” that springs from the inherent comedic mentality of star Jenny Slate, but as the conclusion draws near and the agenda becomes clearer the laughing becomes less and less. I find this interesting because while the film wants to deal with the issue of abortion in a way that doesn't place judgment on its protagonist it also very much alludes to the fact she is still in an adolescent frame of mind. How are we to accept her decisions as well thought-out or mature if she herself doesn't want to be an adult yet? This could, of course, resort to questions about why she is casually throwing her vagina around as well, but we won't get into that here. That Slate and her writer/director Gillian Robespierre can't really approach the topics of motherhood or how far along the baby is when it is aborted show they are just as afraid to get into the thick of the fight as those right-wing, faith-based films are to admit that all atheists aren't bad people. As a kind of epilogue to this review I *guess* I should comment on where I stand when it comes to the issue of abortion because that will undoubtedly influence the reaction you have to this film. I'd consider myself a fairly liberal guy. I don't have anything against same-sex marriage, as a Catholic I'm not even going to force the age old argument of why contraception is wrong down your throat, but when it comes to abortion I can't get behind the idea that it is OK and that is what “Obvious Child” wants you to believe. I understand that in some scenarios it might be the only option or even necessary which is to say in cases of rape, where the mother’s health is at risk, or incest. Under the set of circumstances this film presents though they are striving so hard to come at things from the opposite perspective and to deliver a pro-choice message that not only do things get away from the appealing character interactions of the first half of the film, but diminish this huge decision in a person's life to a simplicity I wish weren't based in so much fact.
We are introduced to Slate's Donna Stern as she performs a stand-up comedy routine that mainly consists of jokes about her butthole and how women feel forced to shut them off when around the opposite sex for fear of farting in front of them. Of course, when she gets home and into her own bed she lets loose and makes the whole thing a big, steaming fart pod. I won't lie, I laughed and you can take from that what you will about my intelligence. Slate is funny and her honesty will get her places, especially in the caveat of little New York indie films where the point of immaturity evolving into adulthood continues to go up in age. Like anything we've seen in the last few years such as HBO's “Girls” or last summer’s “Frances Ha” this is about a woman in her late 20's (let's be honest, you can't even call it mid-20's anymore) trying to discover who she is and how to get to where she wants to be. There is nothing wrong with this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to expand your mind, exploring your options and chasing dreams, but by this point in her life or our lives most of us should have at least carved out a certain path for ourselves yet Donna seems destined to go nowhere fast. Her mother (Polly Draper) sees it and her father (Richard Kind) can't face it. They equally care for their daughter, but in different ways. Her mother doesn't particularly like her taste in men while her father is keen to encourage her creativity while ignoring the surrounding issues. Donna is broken up with after her set at the beginning of the film and she does not go on to deal with it well. Her friends, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and Joey (Gabe Liedman), encourage her to move on and get over it while one night she does exactly that with Max (Jake Lacy) and winds up pregnant because of it.
The bits of stand-up and the interactions between Donna and Joey and Donna and Max are so genuine and show such a wide range of emotion that it is hard to accept Donna's turn towards Nellie's ultra-feminist stance at the end of the film. This archetypal attitude has Nellie trying too hard to always be pissed off and go against the grain no matter if she actually disagrees or not. She will oppose because she believes she can't settle and the organization of society will never be good enough for her because if she did or if it was she wouldn't live up to the personal standards she holds herself to. I try to step back and evaluate these dividing issues on an individual basis; evaluating each by what my moral compass feels is right and wrong rather than simply always feeling one way because a group I may have been stuck in or labeled as tells me I should think a certain way. Wearing black and getting piercings doesn't make you different it just places you in another group, just like the jocks. By trying too hard you only become a conformist yourself.
If you are quick to label me as a conservative and all that comes along with that title simply because I don't find abortion a good option due to social or economic reasoning then I understand there is no changing your mind and you may enjoy a lot of this movie, I know I did up until they became tasteless in terms of their comedy for the sake of their opinion. Is it a coincidence every woman around Donna has also conveniently had an abortion and at an early age or in an earlier time period so as to make them seem in some way brave or more sympathetic? Of course not, but since we are considered prudes if we condemn the literal screwing around of human beings as being irresponsible then I guess it is intended to be positioned this way. For me, and I realize I don't know what it's like to be in their shoes but that's because I made decisions that never put me in those shoes, it is very hard to feel any kind of sympathy for a woman who has a strong support system (granted her parents are divorced) and chooses to live the kind of alternative lifestyle she does get an abortion simply out of convenience and selfishness. As much as those opposed to the pro-life act want to champion the fact women should be able to do what they want with their bodies does that also extend to what they get to do with their unborn child's body? They will also champion the fact that at five weeks old the fetus couldn't be technically classified as a human being, but it is certainly a living organism. As an expectant father myself who heard his child's heartbeat at six weeks it is impossible to imagine snuffing that sound out so my life might not be as complicated due to something I merely think I'm not ready for.
I will even give Donna the benefit of understanding that she is trying to cope with her decision by doing what she does best in telling jokes and I understand that because she can't even face Max long enough to tell him the truth and has to resort to telling it on stage during her act, but in reality it just comes off as all the more crass. I get that you are all progressive and hip for being pro-choice, but does that also mean you feel the need to push the envelope that much further by telling jokes about murdering a kid? Would it be too submissive to show remorse for the actions being taken or was that single tear meant to be redemptive enough? I really don't mean to sound like I'm preaching. I don't want to be THAT person, but before we go out and make things a huge issue over disagreements (which many will say this film is trying to avoid) I'd hoped we might simply look at things on a basic human level and from that gauge there are more solutions to problems than killing them off. It's upsetting that train of thought seems to be asking for too much.
The real problem is we have become a society so focused on the individual we can't see past anything else. Every child is raised to believe they can be what they want to be, that they can accomplish their dreams or are the best even when they fail, but this mentality is beginning to double back on us. Like those parents who have stopped giving their children vaccines to keep things more natural and as a result are now seeing certain diseases make their way back into circulation, the more we preach the importance of self and not community the quicker we are going to run civilization into the ground. Don't get me wrong, everyone should have ambitions and certainly go after those if your talents match, but there is also the moment in your life where you step back, evaluate and see what might be the more satisfactory life when you're nearing death rather than only considering the immediate future. This pivotal moment, this meeting with Max and night of lust could have been a turning point for Donna and the direction her life was heading (the conclusion of the film strongly hints this is still a possibility), but for the film to be praised as refreshing because the main character gets an abortion because she wants to and isn't hassled about it is upsetting for me because it looks at life and other possibilities in such a passive manner. These characters are conveyed as intellectuals and academics, strong observers given their lenience on stand-up yet they dismiss a thousand interesting philosophical questions as if it were nothing because they are too focused on themselves to step back and gain any kind of perspective.
I realize this has been more of an essay on why I don't support abortion and why I can feel that way but still not have an issue with other *ISSUES* plaguing our society, but this line of thought is what the film inspired me to feel and so it is how I responded. As for the craft of the picture it was well enough for a first time feature director, though the pacing was slow at times (even at 84 minutes) and while the relationships between the characters and the natural aesthetics are compelling the themes and ideas being perpetrated can only be seen as unfortunate.