The rom-com is one of those genres which seems to have been pretty much beaten to death, and it’s increasingly difficult to find ones which aren’t sentimental, simplistic stories we’ve already seen dozens of times before. Perhaps the word to best describe the genre as a whole at this point is “safe”, since risk-taking isn’t generally something that one finds in romantic comedies.
And then along comes something like Obvious Child, which has often (somewhat unfairly) been labelled an “abortion comedy” by the media, particularly the American right-wing press, which has had a field day with it. It concerns twenty-something Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), who gets dumped and fired in quick succession. Feeling depressed and sorry for herself, she has a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), and gets pregnant as a result. Unsurprisingly, given how much of a mess her life already is, she decides to abort the pregnancy.
This little splash of controversy is enough to ground Obvious Child in a world that is recognisably our own, where the characters actually act like real people would. So many screen pregnancy narratives never even raise abortion as a possibility, regardless of how ill-prepared the woman in question might be to have a baby. Here, by contrast, Donna decides immediately that she wants an abortion; her choice is never questioned and her ability to make her own decisions never doubted.
A lesser film might have had a pro-life strawman turn up at some point so Donna could prove them wrong, but writer/director Gillian Robespierre instead presents a world where everybody agrees that the abortion is the right thing to do. Obvious Child may have raised controversy, but it’s not actively trying to cause it: rather, it’s simply going for a realistic portrait of the world Donna lives in, where she’s surrounded by similarly young, like-minded people. She may have some growing up still to do, but all her friends acknowledge that she’s enough of a grown-up to make this decision. It’s very different to how pregnancy storylines usually turn out on film, and very satisfying for it.
This would all count for nothing in a comedy if it wasn’t funny, and Obvious Child is, fortunately, hilarious. Once again, it all comes from the characters being believable as real people, and much of the credit for that must go to the excellent cast. Lacy plays Max as a defiantly uncool but thoroughly decent guy, Gaby Hoffman’s impassioned ranting is sure to strike a chord with many audience members, and Gabe Liedman gets some of the biggest laughs as Donna’s gay best friend.
As the focus of the film, though, it’s Slate who carries it in what deserves to be a star-making turn as Donna. She’s instantly likeable and relatable thanks to the bluntness of her comedy, and it’s hard not to sympathise with her as she endures the many difficulties of her comically screwed-up life, of which her pregnancy is just one.