Feminist Film Fridays: Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child”

Welcome to Feminist Film Fridays, where we review bomb movies made by bomb women. Whether they be classics of old, anthems of new, or somewhere in between, we’ve got your fem-film fix here at Women’s iLab.

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Jenny Slate on the set of "Obvious Child". Photo via thedissolve.com.

Jenny Slate on the set of “Obvious Child”. Photo via thedissolve.com.

The film Obvious Child covers everything under the sun:  cream-cheese comparison,  feminine byproducts, self-deprecatory and playful attitudes, unceremoniously flailing relationships, and religion. The film is a Kickstarter project directed by Gillian Robespierre, based on her short film made with Anna Bean and Karen Maine. It sets the tone in the first thirty seconds: modern, succinct, honest, and goddamn hilarious.

On a macro level, the film is a commentary on the overblown rhetoric that surrounds a woman’s right to choose abortion within modern politics.

Taking its name from the Paul Simon’s oft-adored eponymous song, Robespierre’s highly successful vision mirrors the hodge-podge lyricism on Simon himself as a presentation of bits and slivers of a life. Its progression, intuitive yet nebulous enough for variable readings, implores the viewer (listener) to reach within themselves for their own interpretation of its meaning.

In the film, the protagonist Donna Stern resides in hipster-mecca Brooklyn – a fact instantly recognizable by the area’s sheer concentration of oversized patterned-wool sweaters – and is played by the former SNL cast member Jenny Slate. The actress’ unwavering realism serves her well in the role of a potty-mouthed stand-up comedian, though it was indeed the downfall from her career in late night (she got the boot from SNL after just a few episodes for her F-bomb lip-slip on live television, no doubt to the tune of hefty FCC fines to that network), she has found a more befitting forum for her candid personhood. Robespierre’s words flow from her mouth with the intuitive cadence characteristic of great comedians, which Slate is no doubt slated to become.

The film opens to the tune of Stern’s unapologetic stand-up comedy, in which subjects characteristic to the female experience are explored with unabashed hilarity. After nailing her routine on stage, Stern goes to the venue’s bathroom (tellingly unisex, tagged with iconoclastic graffiti) wherein she is met by her boyfriend – who served as fodder for deprecatory jokes just moments before on stage – who, after fessing up to a clandestine relationship with Stern’s best friend, then breaks up with her unceremoniously.

Next, the film cuts to her failing workplace, “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books”, an ode to the hyper-kewl millennial sensibilities from which Obvious Child was born (no pun intended). Enter Stern’s boss who adds insult to her heart’s injury by breaking the news of the store’s closing. And what does any jobless, loveless, twenty-something do when faced with such a cascade of setbacks? Why, she gets very, very drunk and meets a straight-laced Christian financier with whom to dance and sleep.

The next morning Stern awakens in the stranger’s bed to flashbacks of the night before. After sneaking out in attempt at the perfect one-night stand, the film cuts to a local vintage store in which our heroine discovers soreness in her breasts, the ramifications of which are then confirmed by a pregnancy test. At this point, the film’s strict adherence to classical realism is broken with New Wave technique in which Stern speaks directly to the viewer about the stupidity of her having unprotected sex, creating a cautionary “do as I say, not as I do” correspondence between the filmmakers and their audience. It is at this point that Obvious Child’s overall believability weathers some minor blows, as Robespierre implores the viewer to leave the protagonist’s scheduled abortion on Valentine’s Day unquestioned, in a forced poeticism too obviously childish.

Though the topic of abortion is no longer a rarity in film and television, Robespierre’s vision is undeniably unique. Last year, we watched the enlightened Lena Dunham shy away from the writing a character that actually goes through with the procedure, as Jessa from Dunham’s hit HBO series GIRLS experiences serendipitous blood flow after already declining to report for her appointment.

Historically, the topic of abortion is raised within the medium of film only to be conveniently avoided via the ubiquitous miscarriage or false-positive plot-twist. Yet for young woman across the nation, no such deus ex machina exists, and it is about time someone like Robespierre told their stories. Obvious Child’s protagonist never wavers in her resolve undergo the procedure. In fact, abortion does not even constitute the film’s main conflict. Rather, the hot-button issue serves as a dramatic element framing the young lovers’ path through courtship in a generation that fucks first, and asks questions later.

Unfortunately, our heroine’s unwavering resolve mirrors the film’s overall lack of character development. Donna, though hilarious, relatable, and flawed, is one-dimensional – a simple vehicle to advance the film’s agenda in presenting an honest portrayal of abortion to the modern female. Her exceedingly fertile love interest is overly coy and suspiciously all-American. And Robespierre continues to compromise the success of her realism forcing the one-night-stand-man to also be Donna’s economics-professor mother’s star student, which conveniently and mechanically pushes the star-crossed lovers back into each other’s lives following Stern’s attempts at avoidance.

Donna’s best friend Joey, played just right by the Inside Amy Schumer staff writer Gabe Liedman, is hilarious and supportive, and only once exploited for cheap laughs as that rom-com staple, the token gay. We even get a cameo by the once-tolerable David Cross as the lurid, sexually aggressive comedybro who shows Stern just how dreamy her would-be baby-daddy is. Is it just me or does Cross seem to grow more and more insufferable with every supporting role indie filmmakers continue to toss his way?

What the film lacks in character development it makes up for in social and political relevance. As an ideology-driven work, Obvious Child is an honest portrayal of a knee-jerkingly cool twenty-something trying to pick up the pieces after a thorough dumping and prompt pregnancy. The film is peppered with her generation’s distinctive bricolage, a mason jar brimming with bargain barrel red-wine, thrift shop digs both itchy and economical; Robespierre’s knack for writing and depicting unapologetically self-centered twenty-somethings is on full display. The brilliance of Robespierre’s brief 83 minute meditation is implicit in her presentation of the film’s ostensible subject – abortion – in a light more reflexive of its place within the life of the liberal American woman today; less Fox-newsie, male pundit talking-heads, more Inga Muscio, Third-Wave cuntlovin’, albeit emotionally taxing, and most importently, free from hefty declarations of immorality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: AMANDA BURKE

Currently a journalism student at Boston University, formerly a line cook with a side gig selling vintage jewelry. I am interested in the way our narrative species communicates and consumes information and images, and the power of storytelling to connect us all. I am passionate about social politics and policy, and hope one day work for an organization that shares my dedication for feminism, culture, and the arts.

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