If you've heard anything about the movie Obvious Child in the last few weeks, chances are, the main character's abortion has come up every time. It's impossible to read an article about the film without the word being mentioned in the first few lines, or to hear someone describe Child without calling it "that movie about an abortion." And its not only reviewers; in its poster, the movie proudly described itself as an "abortion-themed rom-com," and its two-minute trailer spends a good portion of its time talking about its protagonist's upcoming procedure. The thing is, though, that despite what you've heard, Obvious Child isn't about abortion; it's a romantic comedy that just happens to feature an abortion, and to narrow its focus down that dramatically does far more harm than good.
In Obvious Child, Donna (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring comedian/actress in her late '20s who discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her with her close friend. In response, she cries a lot, drinks a lot, and overshares a lot, spilling way too many details of her personal life to crowds of strangers at her comedy shows. One night, she meets Max (Jake Lacy) at the bar, and after some hilarious, drunken flirtation, they go home together. Later, both of them, alone and together, try to figure out if their hookup was a one-time thing, or if it's the start of something more.
And so begins the romantic comedy that is Obvious Child. The abortion element doesn't even come into the story until nearly halfway through, and even then, it's not the central focus. With the exception of a few scenes that are meant solely to show what the process of scheduling and getting the procedure is like, most of the movie's abortion-related moments are there to demonstrate Donna's personality, her relationship with her parents, or her complicated feelings about Max. Donna's decision to terminate her pregnancy is important, of course, but to condense Child into an "abortion comedy" ignores everything else the movie has to offer.
Yet that's how it's being marketed, and what audiences know it to be. The reasons for that are understandable; so few movies tackle the topic of abortion, and almost never do any of them show a character actually going through with the procedure. As Child 's director, Gillian Robespierre, recently said, there's a "misrepresentation of women on screen when it came to unplanned pregnancy." The vast majority of the films and TV shows with characters contemplating abortions have them go through with their pregnancies, and others don't even feature abortion as an option. Obvious Child is a necessary and important anomaly, and it's commendable that its studio is not afraid to shy away from the film's abortion plotline when marketing it to audiences. Calling it a movie about abortion, however, is not beneficial. As a result of that, people will view it as a "genre film," a "message movie," instead of what it is — a romantic comedy like any other, just one that happens to show an abortion.
By narrowing its focus down so dramatically, Obvious Child could fall into the trap that befalls many other films categorized by their "unusual" plotlines, regardless of what they're actually about; just look at Blue is the Warmest Color (below), for instance, to see the effects that limiting a movie to its most controversial element can have. Despite being a coming-of-age drama, far more people know Blue as "that movie about lesbians," and many dismiss it based on one element of its plotline. A similar thing happened to The Fault in Our Stars, a teenage love story that's seeing its main themes ignored in favor of being known as "that movie about kids with cancer."
Such a reduced focus isn't always a curse, as Fault has proved; the film has a massive audience, and it's doubtful many people were turned off by its categorization as a "sick kids" movie. Hopefully, Obvious Child will have a similar fate, and audiences will flock to see it, as they should. Yet while the immediate results may be fine, the fate of these "special movies" in the larger picture may suffer. When movies are categorized as "unique" just because they tackle a controversial subject, they'll never become part of the mainstream. They'll always be lesbian movies, or cancer movies, or abortion movies; they'll never just be romances, or dramas, or comedies. If we want more movies like them made, ones that feature subject matters rarely seen on-screen, then we have to start treating them as commonplace; only then will their existences seem like not a big deal, but instead, a normal, if important, part of our culture.
So when you see Obvious Child — and see it you should — be impressed by its depiction of an abortion, yes, but also by everything else it has to offer. The film is funny, and smart, and as endearing a romantic comedy as any since the days of Nora Ephron. There is so much reason to love this movie, and the abortion is only one part of that; notice it, yes, but don't let it color the entire film. If we want more films like Obvious Child getting made, then we have to stop calling it an "abortion movie" when it's so, so much more than that one element of its plot.
Images: A24; Sundance Selects