Outside of the Box: A Roundtable on Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child

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Image credit: A24

Earlier this year, Gillian Robespierre’s rom-com Obvious Child garnered much attention because, quite simply, it addressed abortion. In the film, Donna (Jenny Slate, of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and swearing on SNL fame) gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to terminate the pregnancy. 

While the conversations around Obvious Child ranged from the celebratory to the critical, the point was that people really want to talk about this comedy. With this in mind, we asked three film professionals, writers Zeba Blay and Fariha Róisín, and actor Deragh Campbell, to get their own dialogue going. What follows goes far beyond the qualifier of “abortion rom-com,” addressing race, class and a new era of women in comedy. – the cléo editors 

ZEBA: I’ll start off by saying that I saw this film well into the hype, with the buzz phrase “abortion rom-com” firmly attached to it. Naturally, I wasn’t surprised when it proved to be a lot more complex, and gratifying, than expected.

However, I’ll be perfectly honest: on paper, this is exactly the kind of film I’ve grown a little weary of. It ticks a lot of the boxes associated with this new crop of movies and TV shows following twenty-something white girls in Brooklyn that, for better or worse, I as a black woman tend to find vaguely alienating. This isn’t to say that it is impossible for me to enjoy stories that don’t focus on women of colour, of course. But oftentimes, the discussions that surround movies like Frances Ha, Bridesmaids, and Bachelorette, or shows like Broad City and Girls, feel exclusionary by default. I see the revolution in this “new age” of women in comedy, women on screen being frank and open and honest about their bodies, and at the same time I feel as though the revolution isn’t for me.

Still, as far as filmmaking and storytelling goes, there is no denying the fact that Obvious Child is important—vital, even. Not only is there the refreshing subversion of rom-com conventions, but obviously there is Donna’s (Jenny Slate) ultimate decision to get an abortion. But the real revolution for me was not merely in her “right to choose,” but her right to have complex and often contradictory feelings about that choice, with no judgment and no after-school-special melodrama.

FARIHA: Obviously—along with Zeba—I, too, have grown tired of this trend. I find it hard to sometimes truly connect with the character because she/they don’t necessarily share a lot of the struggles that I have had to deal with on a daily basis. Whether it’s Hannah on Girls or Frances in Frances Ha, there is a romance to the ease with which they live their lives—a certain joie de vivre which doesn’t always translate to me and my life. Even their so-called “personal battles” are so trivial. It’s a very specific, new age, carefree white girl aesthetic that is definitely exclusionary by default. And it’s become such a trope: The New York white girl having a conflict of “self” as she flounders across Brooklyn, trying to find out who she “really is.” Donna could have easily fallen into this archetype, but she didn’t. Obvious Child was far more complex, and her story was pretty relatable to me—but that’s probably because I’ve lived what she’s lived.

I had an abortion six years ago—I was 18. My boyfriend at the time got me pregnant, then left me three days after he found out. It was traumatic. At the time, Juno was a movie about a pregnant teen that didn’t really include me as a person who was going through something similar. Firstly, she kept the baby. And I didn’t have a choice—I couldn’t keep it, no matter how much I wanted to. I think that lack of choice was something really well articulated in Obvious Child. Donna doesn’t think twice, which is really relatable as a woman who had been in that place. However, even though the decision itself was relatively simple, I battled with myself for a long time. I cried for weeks beforehand, then years after—and I felt as though Donna felt the same way. She understood me, and I understood her.

That scene where she’s at the doctor’s office and the doc is asking if she has any insurance was all too real. Then, of course, her ultimate realization that on top of the abortion being this horrible physical and emotional experience, it’s also ridiculously expensive. I remember watching that scene in Veep where Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character, Selina Meyer, mentions that if men had to have abortions, you could get them out of ATMs. Gillian Robespierre (the director) ensures that it’s not this simple, complicit experience—you go in and they just clean you right out—and that is so beautifully captured in the scene with Donna at the doctor’s office.

But can we talk about what wasn’t so great? The aspect that annoyed me the most was Max (Jake Lacy), the “impregnator”—who also happened to be a super chill individual that I personally found very hard to believe. I’m sure men like him exist, but I am a very cynical young lady who has had her fair share of sex, and dated enough young men—and I don’t trust the Maxes of the world. I found his clean-white-waspy aesthetic to be full of shit. Max’s tender, knowing, calm exterior seemed like a snidey-cruel veneer. I would love to believe that he’d just want to watch Gone With The Wind with the super-awesome Donna (after she went through a horrible thing that was, like, a lot of his fault) on his TV with cable—but come the fuck on? That part was cheesy as fuck, and I left the film conflicted. I was happy that I had watched a movie about abortion that wasn’t Revolutionary Road, but sad that the silver lining for Donna was such a clichéd one.

DERAGH: I saw Obvious Child last month when it was playing at the Varsity [theatre] in Toronto and cried 6-8 times. I am currently on the set of Nathan Silver’s film Stinking Heaven, which is shooting in Passaic, New Jersey, and when I made my way into NYC after a particularly harrowing shooting day to re-watch it, I remained relatively unmoved. So I don’t trust that my fluctuating emotional susceptibility makes for very objective viewing.

However, seeing the film for the second time I was able to sort out some facts. This is a list of characters that are (to varying degrees) supportive/sympathetic/compassionate to our protagonist and her scenario: Donna’s BFF, Nellie (Gabby Hoffman); her gay comedian best friend, Joey (Gabe Liedman); her mother (Polly Draper); the woman at the clinic; the man that impregnated her, Max; the crowd at her comedy night that she informs of her pregnancy. She does not tell her father (Richard Kind) or the owner of the bookstore that she works at, but they are really nice and would probably be likewise nice about it. There are two characters that are insensitive to the protagonist: her ex-boyfriend and the sleazy/sad comedy club owner, Sam (David Cross), both of whom are easily dismissed as assholes. From this I conclude that the film is made up of very reasonable people.

What I think has made the treatment of the subject of abortion so impactful to a wide audience is this very reasonable filmmaking. This is a film that was made for a reasonable amount of money, and therefore has all the restrictions imposed on it by a reasonable budget: the setup is basic, and the scenes aren’t covered from every possible angle. Each scene plays out for a reasonable amount of time: from her waiting for the pregnancy test to being in the operating room, the camera stays at a fair distance and the action plays out patiently. The actors are reasonably good-looking and wearing reasonably little makeup. Given the hysteria that surrounds abortion, people are stunned by this reasonableness.

A problem that I had with the characters and performances is they were too reasonable. Gabby Hoffman’s eye contact with Jenny Slate was too unflinching, her embrace too firm. Her dad was psychotically nice. Everyone was so perfectly there for each other. There was none of the awkwardness of trying to be there for a friend going through something difficult and not knowing exactly what to do. Max walks out when she announces her pregnancy at a comedy show, but he compensates by bringing flowers to her abortion.

I think there is real value in the way a woman’s experience of an abortion is portrayed in this film, and I don’t think it is necessary for Robespierre to have to reference all of the other, much more traumatic, experiences of abortion, as well.  Nor do I think that her movie has to be as awkward and rambling as the movies I favour. It isn’t a filmmaker’s responsibility to tell every story—it’s an audience member’s responsibility to seek out and support more diverse voices and styles of filmmaking.

I’d be interested in knowing how you guys feel about the “neurotic female protagonist” that always fucks up or is humiliated and needs help from more stable characters, whether male or female?

FARIHA: I think the “neurotic female protagonist” trope is a very close cousin to the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, and it can be disarmingly offensive, which is one of the reasons there is a lot of criticism that asks for diversity (whether racial or otherwise). The problem is that these characters become formulaic archetypes that are destructive/unimaginative/reductionist and ultimately boring: Hannah Horvath (the poster girl of the NFP) is a boring character. I am interested in stories where women are there for each other, where women—and/or the protagonist herself—ignite a change of character and/or life direction—not a man. Which is why, for the most part, I did enjoy Frances Ha. Frances’ relationship with Sophie was an isomorphic romantic relationship, but they both had agency over their lives and it was cathartic to watch the ups and downs not only of each self, but also of a close female friendship.

I want new female narratives, and I think comedy is a good way to really process the frustrations of womanhood, without it being trite, or overdone, or insincere. What do you guys think? Do you think comedy is a good medium to exercise, with liberty, the complexities of female lives?

DERAGH: I definitely think comedy can be a vehicle to discuss feminism. A good joke has the ability to blow through conventions and, in the case of the romantic comedy, it can simultaneously call out the genre for the ways it has become stale, call out the audience for the expectations they have developed, and tell us about the character—their world and ours.

I think the way that these comedies can become problematic is when the female protagonist makes jokes while simultaneously humiliating herself. While the audience is acknowledging the truth of what the character is saying, they are also registering that she is embarrassing. I worry that this embarrassment is a way of being apologetic and making smart women more likeable and digestible to a mass audience. It’s like these female characters are asking the audience to accept their expression but also to accept their apology for it.

ZEBA: In this context, comedy was the most interesting medium used to explore abortion. That’s what people found so appealing about (the less effective) Juno, right? Any time a subject so often painted as either black and white, as high drama or low comedy, is allowed to exist in a place somewhere in between, it’s exciting. In this case, Robespierre is making a statement not only by subverting the typical abortion narrative, but also the formulaic rom-com narrative.

So, to Deragh’s point about reasonableness: yes, Donna’s support system is conspicuously decent throughout her entire experience, conspicuously supportive. We don’t get the asshole boyfriend or the disapproving parents or the clueless friends. The film is constantly trying to assure us of how unpredictable it is, how the conflict won’t come from a ridiculous misunderstanding between the two romantic leads, or an obstacle in the shape of an overbearing, judgmental mother. Of course, people do experience these things, as Fariha aptly mentioned, but I don’t think the film, as “realistic” as it is presented, is so much interested in realism.

It is more keen on making a point, and that point is that abortion isn’t this taboo, rare thing. That indeed many women have gone through it, and many of those women have considered it their first and only option, as opposed to movies like Knocked Up where the word abortion isn’t even used.

So we have that, coupled with the “real”-looking but still conventionally attractive female lead making jokes about vaginal discharge and farting, to level off the heaviness and make her more relatable. I am indeed a bit exhausted with the neurotic, potty-mouthed female lead in this new genre of comedy. Not necessarily because they aren’t amusing, but because they’ve become the new shorthand for the “funny lady.”

The danger we run into by combatting old tropes is creating new, predictable tropes. I agree that Nellie and Max have their moments but ultimately feel incredibly removed from the reality of the situation because they’ve been so ambitiously drawn to be the opposite of what we expect.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the neurotic female protagonist, but in these new comedies that are supposed to be fighting the conventions of female characters, the NFP runs the risk of simply becoming the answer to the Type A Katherine Heigl clones we usually get in opposites-attract rom-coms. The growing popularity of “funny women” in movies has hinged so heavily on potty jokes, self-deprecation, and navel-gazing—which is refreshing, but can quickly dip into the realm of novelty if not handled correctly (see Tammy, The Other Woman, The Heat). In Obvious Child, I think, for the most part, it thankfully never quite goes the way of a gimmick.

That said, I’d like to see more comedic female roles that don’t rely so much on neuroses or body-humour-as-novelty for their punchlines. At the end of the day her abortion is a powerful statement, but what really saves the Donna character, and ultimately this movie, is Slate’s charm. Yes, the little-girl-lost-in-Brooklyn routine can be eye-roll inducing, but for all its posturing, there’s a sweetness and an earnestness (the best parts of all rom-coms, I think) that makes the shtick not feel like a shtick at all.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born critic based in New York City. She has contributed to Indiewire, Huffington Post, and the Village Voice.

Deragh Campbell is a Toronto-based actor and writer. Her acting credits include Matt Porterfield’s I Used to be Darker, Dustin Guy Defa’s short Person to Person, Nathan Silver’s upcoming Stinking Heaven, and Francesca Coppola’s upcoming short Where Did Our Love Go

Fariha Roísín is a freelance film and culture writer and an editor. She has finished a novel, a compilation of short stories and is currently working on a screenplay.

A journal of film and feminism.

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A journal of film and feminism.