When I first meet Gillian Robespierre and Karen Maine, the director and co-writer of Obvious Child, and tell them I am from Dublin, they both sit up. “That’s interesting. Just with the subject matter of the film,” says Maine, before asking about the specifics of abortion legislation in Ireland. Their film tells the story of a young woman who decides to get an abortion after unexpectedly finding herself pregnant. And while they will later tell me that this film is not intended to be a polemic and couldn’t be further from a so-called statement film, it is clear that both are passionately engaged with the topic, which continues to divide public opinion in the United States.
Obvious Child, however, wasn’t necessarily conceived (pardon the pun) as a response to the so-called “War on Women”, a term often employed to describe certain Republican Party policies relating to abortion and reproductive rights. Instead, it was a reaction to a spate of films released circa 2007 – Juno, Knocked Up, Waitress – that all centred on women in various circumstances confronted with unexpected pregnancies. In all three films, the women opted to see the pregnancy through, barely broaching the subject of abortion, if at all. “We sat for a second and went, ‘Well, this is strange that no cotemporary movies or, really, any mainstream movies in history have had a positive spin on this or ever shown the other side,’” says Robespierre of these films. “And that’s the woman making a responsible choice and still having a happy ending.”
And so, along with co-writers Anna Bean and Karen Maine, Robespierre set out to rectify this. In Obvious Child, a young Brooklyn comedian, played by Jenny Slate, is dumped by her boyfriend and quickly goes into freefall. When a one-night stand results in an unwanted pregnancy, she decides to terminate the pregnancy. Descended from the same lineage as the likes of Girls and Frances Ha, as well as the work of Nicole Holofcener, it’s a sweet, lo-fi romantic comedy that just happens to dance around prickly subject matter. “We wanted to tell the story in this genre, because they’re fun and those are our favourite kinds of movies,” explains Robespierre. “I think they’re entertaining and can take this subject that’s kind of a hot-button issue a little less taboo and more palatable.”
Prior to Obvious Child, the film’s star Jenny Slate was best known for one ill-fated season of Saturday Night Live. She subsequently went on to guest star in a number of television shows, including Girls, but arguably achieved most success for creating and voicing the titular character of the stop motion animated viral short Marcel The Shell with Shoes On, which later spawned a book and has amassed close to 23 million views on YouTube. Slate is a kooky, kinetic actress with a penchant for scatological humour, whom Robespierre describes as one of “the funniest writers of comedy in the world”. It’s her first lead role in a film and it has already prompted Buzzfeed to declare her “Comedy’s Next ‘It’ Girl”.
The film was shot in 18 days on a tight $500,000 budget, which partly accounts for the gritty, realistic feel, although that was also partly deliberate. “I think it’s taking that style where the lighting isn’t super glamorous,” says Robespierre. “When the main character drinks wine, she’s going to get stains on her teeth. It was very important for me and the make-up department to give her wine lips.” Maine interjects. “And the skin-tone bras were a good touch.” This, of course, referring to the fact that the lead character is seen wearing an unfussy nude bra in multiple scenes – a departure from the beautiful lace creations women are often seen wearing in films and more akin to what women wear in, you know, real life. (“I’m rocking a nude bra right now!” says Robespierre.)
What is refreshingly different about Obvious Child is the way in which it tackles its subject. Here, abortion isn’t presented as a life-or-death decision, but rather an ordinary choice that millions of women take each year. And that’s not to say it treats it cavalierly. It’s sensitive without being overwrought, witty without being flippant. I ask Robespierre about avoiding making a “statement film”. “I think I’ve seen that film before. That film has been made and we didn’t want to show her decision-making – will I or won’t I have the procedure? She does that off-screen. She always knew she was going to have the abortion.”
Of course the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a film of its nature, as issues surrounding feminism have seeped into mainstream discourse, with everyone from Beyoncé to Sheryl Sandberg weighing in. “I think it’s cool that feminism is hip. I think it had a bad rap for a very long time. It was about, like, ogre women who don’t shave,” jokes Robespierre. “I think that all women are feminists, even women who don’t relate to that. If you want equality and don’t want to get raped, you’re a feminist.” She cites Jezebel, The Hairpin and Bust as reference points but emphasises that the culture had little to do with why she made the film. “I’m happy that we’re part of the conversation, but I don’t think that’s why we made the movie. The reason why we made the movie was because we wanted to tell the story and flip the genre on its ass.” With Obvious Child, the first abortion rom-com, it seems safe to say she that she has achieved her goal.
Obvious Child opens on limited release on August 29th.
Words: Amy O’Connor