Obvious Child is the independently-financed cinematic response to Hollywood’s Knocked Up and stars Jenny Slate, whom fans of Parks and Recreations may recognize as Mona-Lisa, the awful sister of Ralph Ralphie. This is a movie set in New York about a standup comedian at a low point in her career and her love life when she meets a great guy, but there is a catch. She gets pregnant. I wanted to see it after seeing the previews, and Obvious Child did not disappoint.
I was brought up Christian fundamentalist, but I am also a born New Yorker, which means that I am personally conservative and adhere to the unofficial rules of respectability politics while eschewing that lifestyle for everyone around me. I brashly believe that other people’s lives are their lives. I can often imagine what the party line would be in any situation. While I thought Obvious Child was an earthy, realistic portrait of a young woman at a turning point in her life, I could simultaneously imagine that Obvious Child embodied literally everything that Christian fundamentalists believe about Hollyweird behavior: hard-drinking, promiscuous, pro-abortion, vulgar, unladylike.
What is frustrating about this internal cultural dialogue is that Hollywood would never make a film like Obvious Child, yet it shares many of the same values as Christian fundamentalists. If you compare and contrast Obvious Child with Knocked Up, there are two similarities: a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy and a romantic relationship, and the main character is not a seasoned adult. Knocked Up lives in a fantasy world that two single people will have a baby and stay together. Women are always fully formed, perfectly coiffed adults ready to plunge into the business of caring for a family, including her adult romantic male partner, whereas the guy goes on a journey which ultimately leads to him matriculating as an adult with a wife and a child.
Obvious Child’s goal is never to make a family or even a couple, but to make a more mature adult who is ready to honestly tackle all aspects of her life. The film has funny moments and addresses the art of making comedy out of life, but it is not a comedy. Obvious Child is a portrait of a woman with real friendships and a bedrock connection to her parents, but her life is far from perfect. When she meets the right guy, as a viewer, you hope that things work out because they have chemistry, but the romantic relationship and the ensuing complications of an unplanned pregnancy never become the focal point of the film and are depicted as another aspect of her life.
Obvious Child does an amazing job because films rarely give space to be imperfect and not judged as a bad person to women. The movie never just makes her the female version of Seth Rogen, although she enjoys scatological humor. She is an interesting person, and her low points are not always funny. She may be a stand up comedian, but she hides and becomes awkward around other people. Obvious Child does a brilliant job of making the viewer feel her discomfort in certain social situations. Obvious Child also deserves kudos for reflecting her financial vulnerability. She cares about the cost of things, has to pay rent, and worries about replacing her day job, which is not her career.
I thought one of the most mature things that Slate’s character did was to immediately know that she was not ready to have a child and not waffle on deciding whether or not to have the abortion. She only consults with others on the logistics surrounding what she has decided, not on what she should do. I find it aggravating when the majority of a movie consists of a mealy-mouthed character not knowing what they want. Slate’s character knows who she is and what she wants instead of allowing herself to get carried away by time and let things happen to her.
Some readers may ask how do I reconcile being against abortion, but pleased with her decision. I do not think of it as being inconsistent. I think of it as knowing your role in another person’s life. Would you let Slate’s character pet sit your cat? In a pinch, sure, but the water bowl would probably not be full and fresh. She would eventually do a great job as she spent more time doing it and got to know the cat, but she would not be my first choice. Yet there are people who would say that once you conceive, that means you should definitely have the baby. Ideally, yes, but if those same people are not ready to give the person the keys to the house and let them care for someone that critical person loves, maybe that person does not really mean it. What are you prepared to do on a daily basis to help sustain that life? In my personal life, I have devoted myself to making existing children’s lives better and fail even with the best of intentions. The debate about abortion is disingenuous. We criticize women for having abortions and having babies outside of wedlock. Then if they have the babies, we make daily life impossible for the parents to logistically have the baby. Compare and contrast the time that work and school starts and ends. If you don’t work, you are derided for depending on others. If you do work, any accommodations to insure the survival of the human race is seen as an inconvenient and self-centered. If you are a miracle worker at logistics, you will still be criticized for how you raise the baby. This is what it sounds like when doves cry. Ask even some well-adjusted adults who are happy to be alive if they wish that his or her mother made a different choice. Obvious Child gives voice to all the reticent people who are drowned out by the din of debate not rooted in reality.
Obvious Child’s depiction of female relationships is outstanding; Gaby Hoffman is well cast as one of Slate’s best friends. There is an iconic dinner rant that felt particularly poignant in today’s political climate. She is fiercely nurturing of her friend. Even the stable relationships transform and grow throughout the movie, particularly with her mother. Obvious Child shows an unofficial female mentorship, intergenerational and between contemporaries, that cannot be taught in school and will always survive because it is unofficial, private and rooted in experience.
The film also deserves kudos for portraying a real guy who is working a job, only has one pair of shoes, and is going to school. He is an adult and a sweet guy. Hollywood does not give many realistic images of women, men or relationships. Usually rom-coms give us a man child or a perfect man who is wealthy, handsome and has no flaws, then everyone gets married after two dates. I’m not going to say that never happens, but it is hardly average.
The actual abortion is treated realistically, clinically, but not graphically. Unlike movies like Maelstrom, where the actual mechanics of the abortion takes center stage, Obvious Child centers the main character’s experience in the clinic. The film’s depiction is similar to depictions of television series that show how the character gets to the clinic, interacts with others in the waiting room then gets the medical treatment. Abortion is treated as a medical procedure, an important moment, but not the denouement.
This is hardly a movie for everyone. You may not like the messiness of the situation or the main character. Depending on where you were brought up, these characters may not seem realistic, or you may be frustrated at the level of their maturity. I appreciate Obvious Child because it gave me a peek into the life of a woman who may not be like me, but is more familiar and real to me than the average woman depicted in mainstream movies.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.