Obvious Child: when it comes to abortion, choice would be a fine thing

Obvious Child is not an ‘abortion comedy’ but a movie about a woman choosing to have an abortion in an area where women have access to abortion services. And it is quite funny, because life is funny. Director Gillian Robespierre talks about not judging people


As this nation sets in for another poisonous debate on the subject of abortion – a problem stubbornly resistant to lazy “Irish solutions” – we welcome an impressive film on the subject. Those content with the grim status quo may fear some sober documentary or heart-rending drama arguing the pro-choice case.

Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Girl is neither of those things. It’s something much more dangerous: a romantic comedy that treats the protagonist’s termination with the lightest of touches throughout. Abortion is not an “issue” in Robespierre’s film. Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comic who, recently dumped, discovers that she is pregnant after a one-night stand. She takes the matter seriously, but makes her decision quickly and without too much fuss. Life goes on as before. Nobody has any sort of nervous breakdown.

“That’s right. She makes her decision very swiftly and without shame,” Robespierre says. “But it’s still not a light decision. She’s allowed to feel emotions. You can lift the stigma and still allow people to have emotions about it. But it’s personal.”

A committed New Yorker, raised in merry Bohemian circumstances, Robespierre never intended her first feature to be any sort of campaigning film. Indeed, if unleashed in the US during the 1970s, Obvious Child wouldn’t have seemed like any such thing (it may very well have been banned here, of course). However, coinciding with the outrage concerning the denial of a termination to a raped woman, the Irish release is an uncannily timely affair. Is Robespierre aware of what’s going on?

“Well, I know that abortion is legal in Ireland. Right?” she says.

Now there’s a question.

Robespierre is not in a position to comment on the specifics of the Irish situation. But she can see faint parallels with the situation in much of the United States. Obvious Child takes place in and around proudly liberated Brooklyn. There are other places.

“Well yeah. It is really scary actually,” she says. “In the United States, there are still so many restrictions to abortion. If she was in Texas, she wouldn’t have been able to get an abortion like in our film. In Texas, she’d have to wait 72 hours and the health centre may have been closed down. The same is true in Utah, Wisconsin, Florida. The list goes on. These restrictions come in under the guise of patient safety. But it’s really about restricting a woman’s right to choose.”

So many conversations that seemed to have ended in the 1970s have undergone unwelcome disinterment over the past decade or so. It’s not all bad news. The western world is becoming more tolerant as regards gay issues. But the US seems to have moved backwards in its approach to women’s reproductive rights. Forty years ago, it was generally accepted – following the ruling in Roe versus Wade – that a women’s right to choose had been established in law. A decade-and-a-half into the new century, the Republican Party looks to have been annexed by the pro-life lobby.

Meanwhile, there are racial disturbances in Missouri and education boards are attempting to stop teachers from mentioning evolution.

Back to haunt us “Yeah, I think a lot of things that we thought were over have come back to haunt us,” Robespierre says. “With civil rights and women’s rights, we thought we’d solved these things. Now they are back on the table. Things are not going well. My parents walked on Washington to address these issues.”

Obvious Child could not be set anywhere but New York. The film zings with that city’s rhythms and timbres. You will not be surprised to learn that Robespierre – a funny woman with a motor-mouth – was born and raised on the isle of Manhattan. Her father studied at New York University’s film school, but eventually drifted into the work of advertising. As a kid, she remembers him hauling around one of the era’s enormous video cameras. But she didn’t get much of a chance to squint down the viewfinder.

“No. I didn’t really. But Dad would put us in his movies,” she says. “He’d do all this in-camera editing and I ended up getting the film bug.”

Robespierre initially studied art history and sculpture at college, but an encounter with a Super-8 camera nudged her down her current path in life. Once she shot her first frame, that was that. She made her way to film school and had her first encounters with the artform’s still-unreconstructed sexual politics.

“All the boys wanted to make was horror films,” she laughs. “They’d put me in them as the girl who dies at the beginning. I never had the courage to say anything, but I thought: ‘I can do better than this’.”

She could. But it took a while. Robespierre could have been forgiven for making immediately for the west coast. If you want to make films set in Alaska, Oklahoma or Idaho, Los Angeles is still the best place to get them moving. Robespierre couldn’t countenance such disloyalty. “I really don’t feel the need to go anywhere that I’ve not been invited,” she says. “I love LA, even though I make jokes about it. But I have everything here that I need. I have a job I love. I have family.”

Like many artistically inclined folk of her age, she fancied the notion of living in Manhattan’s East Village, but, by the time of her graduation, that part of the city had become criminally unaffordable. So, she joined the great artistic exodus to Brooklyn. I get the impression that no self-respecting performance poet would live in any other borough these days. The establishment of the people’s artistic Republic is complete.

“Yes. That’s right. I was forced to live here,” she says. “But now all my friends are here and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

While she was trying to get various film projects into production, Robespierre worked as a “pencil pusher” in the Directors Guild of America’s New York offices. That was an education in itself. She learnt about the perils of internet piracy. She learnt about the economics of film production. At six o’clock she would go home and seek to write herself into eternity.

“As of May 10th, I quit that job,” she says happily. “I am finally able to do this full time. I have quit the day job.”

Obvious Child began life as a short film. There was no great scheme. She and her collaborators had a story they wanted to tell. What they lacked was a lead actor. Then one day they wandered into a comedy club and happened upon the scabrous, charming Jenny Slate. Her routines focus on the ordinary inconveniences of being female and human: bodily effusions, urban stress, lurking mortality.

“This was 2009,” Robespierre says. “I was just doing what you did in Brooklyn and I stumbled into a comedy show. There she was. We were struggling to find a real actress who had comic timing, but also had range dramatically. What she did was different to anything I had seen before. She was talking about humping furniture and all this stuff. We gave her the script for the short. A day later, she was in my kitchen drinking beer. A week later, we were shooting the film”

The initial version of Obvious Child gained surprising degrees of traction for a short. Hanging the film around an abortion certainly invited some attention, but it was the off-centre comedy that made the piece fly.

“It did do really well for a short, “ she remembers. “These blogs all began mentioning it. We had a great festival run. And then we went from five hits to 40,000 in no time at all. It was an amazing thing.”

There is an interesting, deeply ironic scene in the longer version that finds Slate’s character watching movies with her current boyfriend. She declares, unconvincingly, that she hates romantic comedies. We are invited to conclude that her feelings are more complex. A once-great genre has allowed itself to be debased by Hollywood into the patronising, aspirational (and now defunct) chick flick.

“Yes, almost everybody misunderstands that line,” Robespierre says. “She is a little embarrassed about her love of romantic comedies. It’s become known as a female genre. It’s looked down upon for that reason. People are thrown off because she’s not a sarcastic character. We’re offering a wink to the audience.”

Nobody is likely to mistake Obvious Child for one of those shopping-and-pining flicks. It has an earthiness to it that, while still allowing warmth, pulls the action away from the brash mainstream. Yet one couldn’t possibly confuse it with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days either. There is nothing more worrying for the anti-choice lobby than a story that normalises abortion. Robespierre has accidentally ended up with a slice of oblique propaganda. It may be labelled the “abortion comedy”, but that is not how it plays.

“The reality is that millions of women face unplanned pregnancy every year,” Robespierre explains. “Everyone’s story is different. Their feelings are different. But, in our society, nobody is allowed to have complex feelings about abortion. That’s what all those restrictions are about. In the film, she does talk to Planned Parenthood. She talks to her friends. But the decision is hers.”

Yet it is the ease with which the characters address her decision that leaves the most lasting impression. When the news eventually breaks, the heroine’s mother remarks: “Oh is that all? I thought you were moving to LA.” A generation has passed since Roe vs Wade, and mothers can now share such experiences with their daughters.

“I don’t think a woman should feel ashamed or judged for taking a deeply complex personal decision,” Robespierre says. “Whether they end up having the child or giving it away for adoption is nobody else’s decision. Nobody can tell you how to feel about it. Nobody can tell you how to make that choice.”

And yet old bastards still do tell young woman how to make such decisions. Indeed, they make the decisions for them.

“Things are not going well,” indeed.

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