Film and TV

Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre on Obvious Child

Yes, Obvious Child is a romantic comedy. And, yes, it includes an abortion.

But describing it as an "abortion rom-com" sells short what a thoughtful story director Gillian Robespierre has crafted.

Jenny Slate portrays 20-something stand-up comedian Donna Stern, who was "dumped up with" and recently lost her job as a bookstore clerk. At a bar after a rough stand-up set, she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a guy who's sweet but a bit straitlaced for her taste. Paul Simon's "Obvious Child" soundtracks their drunken one-night stand. Donna gets pregnant. And she decides to have an abortion.

See also: Jenny Slate Brings Drama, Laughs to Obvious Child

Robespierre sees the film within the context of the recent storytelling boom. "I think there's a whole momentum going on right now with storytelling," she says. "We're just excited to be a part of it with other storytellers who are telling authentic, realistic stories."

And the comparison is well suited. Scene by scene, Donna's conversations and interactions all feel unabashedly genuine, from her realization in a dressing room that she might be pregnant with the baby of a guy she and her roommate refer to as "peefarter" to her sometimes stumbling but emotionally raw and hilarious stand-up sets, which were inspired by Slate's own work as a stand-up.

"The dialogue was important for us to be really funny dialogue and you almost feel like a fly on the wall of Donna's life," says Robespierre, who wrote and directed the film. "But we didn't shoot it vérité style."

Instead, the film has a timeless look with static camerawork that's reminiscent of Woody Allen's films. It's beautifully shot and lacking what Robespierre calls "precious things" like handheld camera shots. "What we're doing is trying to stay classic as much as we can, but have the dialogue be the action and have the dialogue be what jumps out at you," she says.

Obvious Child strikes a masterful balance between dark comedy and lightheartedness that allows the audience time for serious thought and playful laughs. Hence the "abortion rom-com" label. But it's Slate's chemistry with her co-stars, including Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, and Polly Draper, and her ability to exude depth and levity that give the film a true-to-life tone.

"I think that comedy and more complicated feelings and light and darkness go together," Slate says. "This is my first leading role and it's Gillian's first movie, and really what we were initially trying to do was to make a movie -- for her to direct it, for me to star in it, we just wanted to make a movie. And the story to us is modern and natural. I don't think we're trying to push anyone's buttons."

Donna doesn't grapple with her decision to have an abortion. She knows she isn't ready to be a mom, and this point is clearly illustrated. But her choice isn't presented as flip, political, or morally shaded. She does, however, use it as stand-up material to publicly work through and process her emotions.

"That sort of range is already in [Jenny's] stand-up, and I think it made me see that she could be an amazing dramatic actress because she was already doing that on stage," Robespierre says. "I think when you take the layers away of romantic comedy, abortion -- those words are not words that really describe what we made."

Ultimately, the film gives us a slice of one woman's complicated life. It's funny and unflinching. It's not a story about abortion. It's her story.

"I think that there are a lot of aspects to our movie that are new or stick out as not having been done before," Slate says. "We understand that the situations, some of them, haven't been delved into before in the romantic comedy genre.

"I think our movie is saying: Here's one person and her complex, hopefully fresh, modern story. And we hope for a conversation that is not just us and the people that we know and agree with, but people from many different perspectives who can have a useful conversation about how we can all live nice lives together and treat each other well."

Obvious Child opens in theaters Friday, June 13.

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski