Baltimore City Paper

Universal Child

Abortions on screen are a dangerous affair. According to research from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, 15.6 percent of women who get an abortion in American movies or television shows die afterward, with 60 percent of those deaths resulting from the procedure and the rest from murder, suicide, or something entirely unrelated. Apparently even considering abortion can be fatal: 14 percent of stories with a woman considering abortion end with the woman dying, regardless of whether or not she gets one.

This is, of course, a stark exaggeration of the true mortality rate: For women who get an abortion in the first eight weeks of their pregnancy, the chance of death is literally one in a million. Although one could argue that the entertainment industry will always prefer to tell overdramatic stories—it's not like anyone expects "Taken" to present a statistically accurate depiction of travel overseas—exaggerated depictions of danger in abortion procedures carry weight in the public imagination. And with the ongoing political struggle over abortion, which will only be exacerbated by the Supreme Court's recent ruling eliminating buffer zones outside of abortion clinics, those social myths about abortion carry real-world consequences.


Given all that, "Obvious Child," written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, is extraordinary because of the sheer ordinariness of its abortion storyline. Donna (played by "Saturday Night Live" alumna Jenny Slate) is a 20-something who works at an "Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books" store by day and mines her personal life for jokes in her standup comedy routine by night. She gets unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend in a bar bathroom, then finds out that the bookstore will be closing in six weeks. She tries to cope via a drunken one-night stand with the preppy, slip-on-shoes-wearing Max (Jake Lacy), but ends up pregnant and ultimately schedules an abortion on Valentine's Day.

But while her abortion is central to the plot, it is not the central conflict. In fact, the abortion mostly just serves as a catalyst for the movie's main conflict—namely, Donna's awkward, blooming relationship with Max and her decision whether or not to tell him she's getting an abortion.


The abortion process itself is not sensational: Donna goes to Planned Parenthood and says she wants an abortion, joking that her way of asking sounds like she's ordering at a drive-thru. She isn't torn about her decision—in fact, she only gets emotional when the doctor tells her that the procedure will cost $500, an amount nearly equal to her rent. And when she gets the abortion, the whole scene feels overwhelmingly ordinary. She fills out a medical chart, the procedure goes as planned, and—spoiler alert!—she doesn't die afterward. Nothing feels like hyperbole.

And that can be extended to the movie's sense of humor, too. It's a funny film, but it draws from real life, not absurd scenarios or over-the-top characterizations, for its humor. When Donna gets dumped, she goes home and fills a Mason jar to the brim with cheap red wine, then leaves her now-ex-boyfriend drunk voicemails. It's a snippet of life as a 20-something that feels far more genuine than, say, Lena Dunham's cupcake in the bathtub and opium-fueled meltdown in the first episode of "Girls." Similarly, while Donna's sense of humor involves plenty of fart jokes, there's nothing close to the hyperbolic food-poisoning scene of "Bridesmaids." Donna bursts into hysterical laughter when Max steps in dog shit, but the audience laughs along because the scene feels natural.

Donna may be a comedian, but Slate makes sure that humor isn't her only emotional register. As Donna sits in a box in her soon-to-be-closed bookstore and contemplates her pregnancy, one can see the weight of doubt and stress on Slate's face.

Slate has great chemistry with Lacy, whose character reveals himself to be more than just a khaki-wearing businessman. He's more than capable of keeping up with Donna's quips, and his oddly adorable small gestures, like warming up butter with his hands for Donna at an Italian restaurant, reveal his nurturing side. Gaby Hoffmann brings additional warmth and chemistry to the screen as Donna's endlessly supportive best friend Nellie: Nellie tucks drunken Donna into bed, dismisses Donna's doubts about her comedy, and insists on calling a cab for Donna's abortion appointment, saying, "we're aborting in style!"

"Obvious Child" has flaws, to be sure. Donna's friend Joey (Gabe Liedman) comes across as a one-dimensional sketch of the Gay Best Friend, serving as a wingman for Donna and telling jokes about his taste in men. And Donna's conflict with her mother (Polly Draper) is never quite developed enough to make the viewer feel invested in it. But "Obvious Child" otherwise feels so determined to be honest and relatable that it's easy to look past these flaws.

Perhaps the most striking moment of honesty occurs near the end, after Donna gets her abortion. She's sitting in the clinic in a hospital gown, waiting with a crowd of other women who have presumably gone through the same procedure. One woman wearing a wedding ring anxiously wrings her hands; the other women stare straight ahead and avoid eye contact. Donna looks around curiously and manages to make eye contact with another woman to smile at her reassuringly. Although it's a small gesture, it feels like "Obvious Child" is making a much larger gesture to the 35 percent of women in the audience who, statistically speaking, are likely to have an abortion by the time they turn 45. It's OK, "Obvious Child" says. You're not the only one here.