“We didn’t see ourselves in leading ladies,” Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre says of the cinematic climate at the time she conceived of the film. Speaking in a behind-the-scenes feature, she explains that the romantic-comedy heroines on screen bared little resemblance to any of the real women they knew in their daily lives.
Robespierre set out to correct this with the 2009 short film “Obvious Child”, which is also included on the Blu-Ray release of the full-length feature of the same name. The project attracted comedian and former Saturday Night Live actress Jenny Slate, who says in the behind-the-scenes feature that the role of Donna was her “first request to play a human woman.”
If the idea of creating modern, relatable, real female characters is a thread that runs through the commentary and features, it comes through 100 percent in the character of Donna. The phrase “manic pixie dreamgirl” is overused and often wrongly applied, but Donna is definitely the manic pixie dreamgirl’s opposite. She’s – – as Slate noted – – human, as well as flawed and presented with challenges, she tackles with an emotional truth and real-life complexity.
Given the emphasis on reality and relatabilty, the challenge Donna is given by Robespierre and fellow co-writers Karen Maine and Anna Bean may seem extraordinary: The short film “Obvious Child” is about a couple who has what is basically their first date in an abortion clinic. That’s because Robespierre had a secondary goal with the short, which was to show “another side of what unplanned pregnancy looks like.” Rather than exaggerate the consequences of abortion into melodrama, Robespeirre says she wanted to show a safe, clean, regret-free abortion.
Feeling there was more to Donna and her world, the short was expanded into a feature-length film (with writer Elisabeth Holm in tow), 2014’s Obvious Child. The full-length film keeps the strengths of the short in tact. Donna (still played by Slate) is still a real, whole person — moreso than in the short. She still gets pregnant from a one-night stand with Max (now Jake Lacy), and has to juggle the unplanned pregnancy and the newly emerging relationship. And, while the abortion is an obstacle in her relationship, getting pregnant and choosing to end the pregnancy isn’t life-ruining act.
Obvious Child also expands Donna’s story, giving her more time to spend with her friends (played by Gabe Liedman and Gaby Hoffman) and parents (Polly Draper and Richard Kind). Donna’s conversations with her friends feel at once both specific, and like they’re conversations that could happen between friends of that age in 2014. If there’s a character that strains this believability, it’s Max, who is so cute, accepting, and understanding that he veers more towards fantasy than the rest.
If there’s a problem with Obvious Child, it’s born of the movie’s strengths. It’s a relief to see a movie that doesn’t treat abortion as a ordeal, and it’s refreshing to see a man in a romantic comedy be an idealized fantasy object. However, the combination of these two elements makes the film light on conflict. It’s important to Obvious Child to keep the abortion regret-free, so once the decision to end the pregnancy is made, it doesn’t continue to drive the narrative. The focus shifts to the relationship between Donna and Max, but he never seems to anger no matter how bad Donna’s behavior gets. Donna goes through ups and downs on her own accord, but nothing is too extreme.
In fact, rather than cause grief for Donna, almost all of the characters are intensely likeable, It’s easy to want to see more from all of them. If real women characters are hard to find in movies, that goes double for real parent/child relationships. Kind and Draper make such an impact as Donna’s parents, it’s a shame they’re in so few scenes together.
The same can’t be said for the scenes of Donna’s stand-up comedy. It’s important for Donna to be passionate about a creative endeavor and career (as opposed to putting her romantic relationships first), and Robespierre and Slate collaborated to come up with stand-up bits that are uniquely Donna’s (and not Slate’s alone). But the scenes of Donna’s stand-up are filmed in a dimly lit, grotty Brooklyn bar, which makes them less than a joy to watch, and those scenes are numerous. (You can tell that the creators are enamored of the comedy – – the commentary continues with fart jokes.) Still, being forced to watch stand-up for the sake of a well-rounded friendship is also something that’s probably happened to a lot of women today; as a result, even these stand-up scenes are consistent with the film’s mission to be real and relatable.