Obvious Child is an insular romantic comedy that purposefully targets a narrow audience, namely those who are Pro-Choice or who at least lean very heavily in that direction. Audiences who have a different stance on abortion or anyone who simply thinks that the issue should be treated more seriously will probably want to skip this film. Regrettably, even the target audience may end up feeling unfulfilled despite agreeing wholeheartedly with the political message.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a struggling stand-up comedian by night and book store assistant by day. She’s also a liberated 20-something-year-old woman who lives in a very Liberal environment in Brooklyn. Donna is the only child to two divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), her best friend is an outspoken gay man (Gabe Liedman), and her roommate (Gaby Hoffman) is aggressively feminist. Even the bookshop she works at is Non-Imperialist and Unoppressive – that’s actually the name of the place. Her world is thrown for a loop, however, when Donna is dumped, loses her job and meets Max (Jake Lucy), who is a smart, charming, good-looking young man. After a night of too much drinking and just the right amount of sex, Donna discovers she’s pregnant with Max’s child and decides to get an abortion.
Jenny Slate is obviously a talented actress and she’s able to convey different emotions and physical states convincingly on screen – her tipsy slur is one of the best. Unfortunately, her character doesn’t give her much room to flex her acting range, instead keeping Slate stuck in an “always on” manic persona with lines that seem more fitting for Internet memes than movie dialogue. In fact, she talks so much that she barely has any time for on-screen introspection. As soon as she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s straight to the abortion clinic to make an appointment. While this presentation is in line with the film’s message – that abortions should be routine and commonplace in the public consciousness – it doesn’t allow much for an actress to sink her teeth into, because there’s no conflict.
The lack of conflict is what will ultimately leave non-political partisans dissatisfied with Obvious Child. Donna is fully immersed in a community that supports abortion. Abortion services are readily available to her. She has a close friend who has already undergone the procedure and can advise her accordingly. The only real obstacle is that Donna doesn’t immediately have $500 for the procedure, but this is never revisited so it’s hardly meaningful except perhaps as a political talking point for women’s health reform. When ancillary, but reasonable issues arise, such as the decision to tell the father about the pregnancy and abortion, those concerns are either aggressively shouted down or subverted with a joke. So with nothing to stop Donna from accomplishing her goal, what are audiences really watching except for charismatic people just going about their day unimpeded?
Even the romcom aspect doesn’t quite deliver. The meet-cute is handled in a refreshing manner, as are some of the later dating scenes, but protagonists are meant to affect the story. Here, Donna does almost nothing to make her relationship with Max work. If anything, Donna keeps pushing Max away, going so far as to reveal her condition and decision to him in one of the worst ways possible. It’s Max who keeps coming back for more for some inexplicable reason, which might be compelling if this were Max’s story, but it isn’t; it’s Donna’s. And she seems incapable of affecting the outcome of this relationship in a positive way. Does she even want this relationship? If not, then audiences are just watching stuff happen with no rhyme or reason.
According to the filmmakers, their intent was not to provide a definitive, singular perspective on abortion, but instead to spark conversation about it. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t present much to discuss since it paints abortion in a very clear picture. All of the immediate women in Donna’s life have had an abortion, and Donna finds her own abortion to be such a good source for comedy that she manages to crack jokes about it and even work it into her stand-up routine. There are no counterpoints to this perspective. There aren’t even any protesters outside of the abortion clinic to present that a conflicting viewpoint even exists. As such, the film is on the borderline of presenting Donna as a Mary Sue for all women who have had or are thinking about having an abortion. If that was the goal of the filmmakers, then that’s their prerogative, but it doesn’t make for a cathartic experience.