Obvious Child (2014) — Image courtesy A24

Obvious Child

Directed by Gillian Robespierre (2014)

There are many hazards inherent in making a film about a hot-button social issue. On the one hand, there is the danger of making a one-sided screed that propagandizes more than it probes. On the other hand, there is the danger of cravenly dodging any real controversy in an attempt to be fair to all sides. And above all, there is the danger of letting the issue become more important than the film, creating something artistically compromised and unengaging that will very quickly become a relic of its time. Thankfully, director Gillian Robespierre avoids all of these perils in her debut feature, Obvious Child, a funny, endearing, and contemporary romantic comedy that just so happens to be about a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

In the first half hour or so of Obvious Child, comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) gets three rounds of bad news. First, her boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti) dumps her out of the blue after one of her comedy sets, confessing that he’s been sleeping with one of her friends. Next, she learns that the independent bookstore where she works will be forced to close in a few weeks, putting her out of a paying job. And then, after a drunken one-night stand with straight-laced computer professional Max (Jake Lacy), she finds out she is pregnant with a child that she is in no way prepared to raise.

Obvious Child (2014) — Image courtesy A24Before long, Donna has scheduled an abortion — for Valentine’s Day, no less — and the remainder of the film is largely devoted to her emotional preparations for this event. These preparations include telling Max, something that she is resolved to do but that becomes particularly difficult as she discovers that she and he are perhaps more compatible than she originally assumed. Another task is telling her business-professor mother Nancy (Polly Draper), with whom she has a somewhat strained relationship. In all of this, Donna has the seemingly unconditional support of her very patient roommate and coworker Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), fellow comedian Joey (Gabe Liedman), and puppeteer father Jacob (Richard Kind).

Donna’s comedy largely revolves around her personal life — which often means her sex life — and the three sets she performs over the course of the film neatly summarize the evolution of her state of mind. This and other similarly convenient plot devices could easily have come across as overly schematic but for the warmth and spontaneity of Slate’s standout performance (in her first leading role in a feature, at that). In Slate’s hands, Donna comes across as someone who hasn’t quite figured herself out but is secure enough to share her insecurities with others, which in turn gives her the strength to confront the reality of her situation head-on.

Obvious Child (2014) — Image courtesy A24Of course, she has plenty of help. Donna’s story is far from the only story that could be told about an unplanned pregnancy, something that becomes apparent when she is told the stories of other women’s abortions. She is lucky enough to have access to the services she needs, objective information about her options, and supportive friends and family members. With these advantages, her choice is hardly easy, but it is manageable. Robespierre and her collaborators have a fairly clear agenda of portraying abortion as something normal — not something that is done on a whim, but neither something so unthinkable that it must be brooded over for ages — and placing Donna in this environment allows them to do so in a manner that never seems strained or reductive.

At its best, comedy shines a light on reality, and Obvious Child ultimately succeeds in shining that light on an aspect of reality that is often denied or ignored. After multiple festival appearances and a screening last weekend as part of the Walker Art Center‘s Next Look series, Obvious Child begins its theatrical run on June 6.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.