A Rom-Com of One’s Own
When first-time director Gillian Robespierre's festival favorite Obvious Child makes its theatrical debut in June, it could herald the sweetest, funniest, most unassuming cinematic revolution in years. Starring former Saturday Night Live bit player Jenny Slate in a ravishing star turn, the romantic comedy quickly caught attention at Sundance for its seemingly impossible-to-do-well premise: a buoyant love story that begins with an abortion.
The inspiration for Obvious Child, which began life as a short, is as straightforward as it gets: The movies Robespierre wanted to see just didn't exist. "We made the short and the feature in response to a bunch of romantic comedies that were about unplanned pregnancy and ended in childbirth," she explains. "I liked Knocked Up a lot, and I liked Juno and Waitress. But they are the reason why we made this movie as a reaction. I enjoyed watching them, but it didn't ring true to me."
The choice to terminate a pregnancy is rarely shown anywhere in our culture, she continues: "Especially in movies, they never let the woman make the other choice — or even say the word 'abortion.'"
Slate's character, Donna, a 28-year-old stand-up comedian, is equally fearless about scaring audiences away with her lady parts. Obvious Child opens with the first of several excellent comedy sets peppered throughout the film, as Donna sympathetically points out the downside of black underwear: visibly crusty panties at the end of the day.
For Robespierre, an "honest" romance — the kind that's as believable as it is dreamy — requires a certain level of candor about the body, the instrument of love. Not that that's the only reason for Donna's hilarious vagina monologues, which were partly improvised by Slate. "Jenny and I both have an affection for poop, for body humor," says Robespierre. "Bodily functions are obviously something that I need to go to therapy about. I can't not talk about it."
Brooklyn Donna meets Midtown Max (Jake Lacy) after one of her shows, and after a brief incident that earns him the nickname "pee-farter" from her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), the couple fumble through a drunken hookup that Donna hopes will be a one-night stand. When she discovers she's pregnant, she doesn't feel that she has any choice other than to abort, given that her day job as a cashier at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books will disappear when the store goes out of business in a few weeks. (The actual West Village shop appears to be doing fine.)
In one of the most pointedly political scenes in the movie, Donna learns that her Valentine's Day abortion at Planned Parenthood will cost $500 and include an STD test. "It was really important to show an authentic experience," Robespierre says about the medical consultation scene. "A lot of movies have really screwed that up and made clinics look terrifying and made technicians or nurses really scary."
Robespierre's commitment to accuracy was such that she sent Planned Parenthood a draft of her script and shot the appointment scene at a local branch. "There are colors there — you can't recreate them on a soundstage," she says. "I don't know where they get their paint from. Like a special Planned Parenthood hardware store — these pinks and yellows. It was really warm in there."
The anxious few days before the abortion leads to some wonderful character moments between Donna and her business professor mother (Polly Draper), whose relationship had previously been tetchy at best. "I wanted to make a complicated mother-daughter scene where sometimes you love her and you need to snuggle even when you're almost 30, and sometimes you want to stab her in the throat because she's annoying you," says Robespierre. Slate manages to spark chemistry with just about everyone in the cast, including her Muppeteer father (a delightful Richard Kind) and her gay pal Joey (stand-up comedian Gabe Liedman).
Notwithstanding Donna's other deep relationships, Robespierre's film is ultimately a romantic comedy. Asked about her influences, the born-and-raised Manhattanite cites "When Harry Met Sally, Crossing Delancey, Say Anything, The Graduate and of course, uh, Woody Allen. You can't say his name, but you can say Annie Hall."
Robespierre's main goal in modernizing the rom-com was to "tell a story about an actual funny person," even with a potentially fraught subject like abortion. "The problem with a lot of romantic comedies is that they're not that funny and the main character is not that believable," she says. "When I sit down and watch those when I have a head cold, they do something warm and fuzzy to me, but I'm left so unsatisfied."
By updating the comatose rom-com genre for a post–Roe v. Wade world, Robespierre joins a coterie of young, female culture makers like Beyoncé, Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer who are not only unafraid to call themselves "feminists" in public, but also produce thoughtful entertainment that creates pockets of progressive perspectives in pop culture.
Indeed, it's difficult to imagine that Obvious Child could have been made in any previous decade, not just for its lack of dithering about abortion, but also for how the film came to be made through some recently formed networks devoted to encouraging women's voices in the media. Robespierre's Kickstarter campaign, which funded a variety of post-production tasks, was publicized through a constellation of feminist websites like Bust, Jezebel and Feministing, sites the director reads every week. She also received a great deal of support and encouragement from a nascent collective of women directors in the New York City area called the Film Fatales, one of whom introduced her to assistant director Laura Klein.
With honesty and naturalism as guiding ideals, Robespierre strived to satisfy herself, though she may not satisfy those who expect a traditional rom-com sense of closure. "We've tried to not wrap it up so tight in a little ending. Some days when I watch the film, I'm like, 'They're going to last forever! They're going to get an apartment! It's going to be great!' Then other days, I'm like, 'Oh God, they're over. Three months, I give them!' Those are my more difficult days."
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