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When a film opens with a detailed description of the “real” contents of a lady’s underpants at the end of a typical day (“little bags of cream cheese”), you know you’re in for some truth. When the bit resurfaces later in the form of a close-up of some crusty post-coital chonies (realistically approximated with a mix of glue, Vaseline and face cream if you need to know), you suspect you’re in the presence of nascent filmmaking genius.
Such are the hilariously scatological flourishes of Obvious Child, the debut feature film from Gillian Robespierre, which stars Jenny Slate and has been billed as a “rom-com about abortions!” And it is that. But it’s much more than that.
Even without the teaser, I knew a bit of what to expect from the movie. I’ve had the good luck to know writer/director Gillian (Gil) Robespierre for the last several years, introduced through her fiancé Chris Bordeaux, a talented musician who lent his score to the film. My impressions of Gil from those early, truncated interactions were characterized by her intensely sharp wit, punctuated by moments of bawdy, mostly toilet-themed vulgarity (I recall her waxing poetic about a pair of chic, baggy pants she was wearing due chiefly to their ability to trap and hide farts).
Those twin foundations are what gird a thoughtful, genuine and thoroughly relatable portrait of a young woman going through the very real and, to a particular demographic, very familiar trials and tribulations of being a quasi-grown up in New York City.
The film’s synopsis has been shared elsewhere but for the uninitiated: stand-up comedian Donna (Slate) gets dumped unceremoniously by her schlubby boyfriend, goes on a serious bender replete with shame-spirally drunken phone calls and shots of wine, gets laid off from work, has sex with a cute stranger and discovers she’s knocked up a few weeks later. In a tragicomic twist, she finds herself scheduling an abortion on Valentine’s Day -- a move that she acknowledges “would not be the worst Valentine’s Day I’ve spent.” But it’s her unflinching decision to terminate the pregnancy without agonizing or changing her mind at the last minute that makes it a refreshing departure from other small- and large-screen treatments of the subject up until now.
“We wanted to tell a story that we felt wasn’t being told in mainstream movies and in our media and culture in general, which was a woman who has a positive, safe, regret-free experience with unplanned pregnancy that ends in an abortion instead of childbirth,” Gil told me over fried calamari and suspiciously “jizzy” aioli (her descriptor) on a recent Sunday in Brooklyn.
“Because movies we’ve seen have either ended in childbirth or adoption or everyone fucking dies. The story that most women in their life will have encountered – one in three women – is the other choice, a choice that we just didn’t see on the big screen.”
The fact that the choice isn’t one that’s agonized over is -- more than the jokes about mouth-f**king a burrito or merkins or pee-farting -- the most controversial and polarizing element of the film. And it’s what makes the movie feel all the more authentic and real. Donna’s circumstances are not dire, at least not in the usual ways. She is not a teenager unequipped to face parenthood, she’s not the victim of rape, nor is she dealing with fetal complications.
She’s simply an immediately recognizable adult whose mail still goes to her mom’s house and who doesn’t exactly know how to do her taxes. She’s not ready to have a kid, and she has the privilege of making a reasoned choice about her future. “Donna’s character is not glib,” says Gil. “She knows she is not financially or emotionally prepared to be a mother, which makes the decision quite clear to her.”
With only minimal hesitation, I dragged my parents, who were visiting New York from the small-ish, conservative Midwestern town of my upbringing, to see the film when it previewed. Progressive and open-minded, they were not rattled by the toilet humor, having been desensitized to it by years of my own fecally themed jokes. Nor were they all that scandalized by the subject matter. They, like myself, worried at the film’s reception in places like my hometown, where making jokes about abortion would be tantamount to making jokes about the Holocaust (assuming people believed that the Holocaust happened in the first place.)
The film did not immediately inspire a dialogue between my mother and me about abortion either. We mainly skirted around the issue, talking instead in broad strokes about the politics of such a movie and about Donna’s existential dilemmas and seemingly extended adolescence (dingdingding). But my mother is a private person, perhaps by virtue of her generation’s less confessional breed of womanhood, and partly because that’s who she is.
When we spoke about the movie again on the phone, she was a little more forthcoming. “To me, [Donna] didn’t have options. She got pregnant from a one-night stand when she drank too much. Dad thought maybe she was too cavalier about it. But I didn’t think that at all.” Having an abortion on Valentine’s Day was, she said, strangely appropriate. It was a romantic gesture towards her future and the life she wanted to lead. “A gift of love to herself,” my mom said.
What with its unrelenting humor, it’s easy at moments to forget how bold a statement the film is making about feminism and women’s rights, and how difficult the reception is liable to be in places that are not as easy-breezy or liberal as Brooklyn, New York. Gil recounted a story about seeing a father and son outside the theater when the film debuted at Sundance, both holding signs offering to pay upwards of $400 for tickets to the movie.
“I thought they were pro-life activists and that they were going to buy tickets and then they were gonna kill us all on stage. With guns or something,” she says. Turns out, all they wanted was Jenny Slate’s autograph. “But I went to a dark place before thinking anything could be just cool and chill and they were just fans. I still get that feeling when people approach us after the movie. It’s like ‘Here it is! This is when I get stabbed!’ But then it’s a woman telling me the movie helped her change the narrative of her life. There’s nothing better than that.”