From Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dirty Dancing, you can count the number of sympathetically-depicted cinematic abortions on one hand—leaving your other hand free to page through yet another one of those think-pieces about how filmmakers aren’t scared of showing abortions in movies, it’s just that abortions aren’t much of a plot line and audiences just don’t want to see abortions depicted on film. Oh, of course! Thanks for clearing that up, Hollywood masterminds! We’ll be sure to tell everyone who’s ever had an abortion that their experience has less cinematic merit than the 149th Paranormal Activity sequel.
The success of Gillian Robespierre’s 2009 short film Obvious Child proved that audiences are up for seeing stories that include abortion. The 23-minute film generated massively positive internet feedback from countless blogs (including Bitch) upon release for its funny, nuanced portrayal of Donna, a young comedian who deals with a recent break-up, tentatively explores a new relationship, and yes, calmly terminates a pregnancy from a one-night stand—all without losing her mind or suffering any of the usual punishments that often befall women who exercise their freedom of choice on film.
Bloggers were eager to anoint the film the anti-Knocked Up. But while abortion is certainly a major plotline in the film, Obvious Child—now a full-length feature film, premiering at Sundance and opening nationwide on June 6th—is a lot more than just the first rom-com about abortion.
Director Robespierre—who co-wrote the original short film script with Anna Bean and Karen Maine in 2009—did take some inspiration from several accidental pregnancy comedies, like Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up, that came out in 2007. “I enjoyed those movies,” says Robespierre, “but I didn’t connect to them at all. And I didn’t think the characters were as complex as they could have been.”
The writers didn’t just set out to write a film that would contradict those movies. The motivation behind the original short was, as Robespierre notes, frustration with the “limited representation of women’s experiences with pregnancy and growing up.”
Obvious Child was Robespierre’s first directing project after graduating from the film program at New York City’s School of the Visual Arts, where her thesis film, Chunk, a comedy about a teenager sent to a fat camp by her parents, also focused on the kind of female experiences that are often side-stepped by Hollywood.
In the year after graduating, Robespierre was stressed out and depressed, and didn’t know why—then she realized it was because she wasn’t shooting anything. That, paired with the revelation that Hollywood wasn’t going to make a film that reflected the life experiences of her and the women she knew any time soon, motivated Robespierre and her collaborators to make a film themselves. After writing the script over the course of several months, Robespierre and Bean saw SNL alum Jenny Slate perform stand-up at a Brooklyn comedy show. Robespierre and her co-writers—who had been looking for months for “the right person who had wit and heart” to play Donna—were blown away by Slate’s act. Soon after sending her the script, Slate signed on.
Shot in four days, the original Obvious Child short took off, both at small film festivals and online. All the feedback from fans encouraged Robespierre to turn the film into a feature length work. Now, it’s heading to Sundance.
The full-length Obvious Child delves more deeply into Donna’s life and story, and brings in new characters and actors, like comedian (and Slate’s “Bestie x Bestie” co-host) Gabe Liedman, Crystal Fairy star Gaby Hoffman, The Office’s Jake Lacy, Arrested Development star and Mr. Show co-creator David Cross, and Richard Kind and Polly Draper as Donna’s parents. While Robespierre is proud to deal with Donna’s abortion in a frank and real way, that’s not all the film is about by a long shot.
Much of the press about the recent Kickstarter campaign has focused on the idea that Obvious Child is a rom-com about abortion. “I don’t think that’s correct,” says Robespierre. “I think it’s a plot line, and it’s definitely a movie that has moments that are very funny and moments that are romantic, but it’s not a rom com about abortion. All the jokes… aren’t specifically about the abortion. But at the same time, it was important for me to tell [this story] in this very palatable and fun and entertaining way—because I love romantic comedies. I wanted to deconstruct how leading women in romantic comedies are supposed to look and sound, while staying true to the genre that I love so much. And I think part of that was casting Jenny, who’s not your typical leading lady.”
Indeed, Slate, who is known for comedy projects ranging from voicing her own Marcel the Shell with Shoes On shorts, to Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, to appearances on Parks and Recreation, gets to make some breakthroughs in the role. “I think that in a lot of Hollywood films, the female character who gets the best jokes is the sidekick, who is always relegated to the best friend role,” said Robespierre. “So I wanted to make a movie about that best friend.”
And while media coverage pegging the film as “the abortion rom-com” isn’t going to end any time soon, providing a realistic, shame-free big-screen depiction of the much-maligned medical procedure is only one of the film’s many goals. Though its thoughtful depiction of abortion gives us all an easy hook to discuss the film, what really makes it notable is its quest to show us a romantic comedy about the kind of people they don’t usually wind up as the stars of romantic comedies.
Related viewing: Check out our clip show of scenes from American films that discuss abortion.