‘What I Want to Do’

Jenny Slate’s Earnest and Funny Abortion Film ‘Obvious Child’

Hailed as an ‘abortion comedy,’ Obvious Child isn’t really about politics—it’s about a woman’s struggle with herself as a person. This wouldn’t work without the kind humor of Jenny Slate.

A24 Films

Funny, touching, and bracingly honest, Obvious Child is the story of Donna, a struggling stand-up comic who is dumped by her boyfriend, has a one-night stand with a much nicer guy (not at all her type), and gets an abortion. That makes Jenny Slate, who plays the heroine, the face of the “abortion comedy,” as the film came to be known after its premiere at Sundance.

“I get why people do it,” Slate tells me of that label, but “I don’t think of our movie as an abortion comedy at all. It puts me off a bit just because it seems flippant, it seems like we’re being rough with the subject, when if you watch the movie it’s anything but rough with it, it’s strong and it’s gentle. But I’m happy to be the face of the movie no matter what people call it.”

You can see why the label sticks. Even apparently daring films like Juno and Knocked Up, which are perfectly up front about sex, are nervous about abortion, zooming past the question as if it’s a pesky embarrassment on the way to the real comedy of pregnancy. Obvious Child stands out for its matter-of-factness on the subject. Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, the film has no hand-wringing about ethics, no protesters carrying placards about baby-killers, none of the preachiness of a message movie from the right or left, just a thoroughly believable character with a hard but necessary and positive choice.

In part, the film’s assumption that abortion is a choice is generational. (Slate is 32, Robespierre 35.) But it is just as much geographical. With a Brooklyn-hip look and attitude, and forays into Manhattan, Obvious Child is rooted in New York, not one of the states where abortion rights are even now under vehement attack. Donna goes to a clinic, and when she’s told that it’s important for her to think about her options, she says confidently, “I have thought about it, and this is what I want to do.”

Robespierre expanded the feature from her short (written with Anna Bean and Karen Maine), which also starred Slate as a woman who has an abortion on Valentine’s Day. And while the script and direction make the story fresh, deft and real, it wouldn’t work without Slate, who makes Donna so easy to like. That is one of her strengths as an actor. She can soften characters who sound obnoxious on paper, like the spoiled liar Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation and a range of egotists and losers on The Kroll Show.

She does the same with Donna’s sharply observant, unfiltered stand-up. The film begins with her on stage, with a joke that Robespierre wrote about feminine discharge. “I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants,” Donna says, and Slate’s delivery makes the line seem hilariously true rather than abrasive. Imagine how much harsher that joke would sound coming from someone who sets out to shock, like Sarah Silverman.

In person, Slate looks like a more polished version of Donna: bright red coat, lilac fingernails, hair in a top-knot, hip but no longer struggling. A stand-up herself, Slate says, “I share a sense of humor with the character for sure, and the way that Donna does stand-up—without very many personal limits, very conversational and story-based—is my style. But I don’t talk about my personal life with my husband in my stand-up. I talk about my past. I talk about myself—myself, independent.” For the comedy sets, Robespierre wrote material that Slate performed and improvised around, making sure she hit all the necessary beats.

Off-stage, Donna is surrounded by equally vivid, wonderfully cast characters: Joey, her gay best friend (played by Slate’s sometime comedy partner, Gabe Liedman); Nellie, her wise and ultra-supportive roommate (Gaby Hoffmann), and even clean-cut Max, the one-night-stand who turns out to be worth knowing (Jake Lacy from The Office). Robespierre and Slate make each scene feel true, from Donna’s drunken calls to her ex on the night he told her he was sleeping with her best friend, to her desperate stakeout of his apartment and later her conversation with her friends about whether she ought to tell Max about the abortion—not ask for his approval or agreement, just tell him. If anyone articulates the film’s basic attitude, it’s Nellie, who rails against the Supreme Court legislating about women’s bodies, but more affectingly says that when she looks back at her own abortion, “I get really sad for my little teenage self. But I never regret it.”

As Slate says of the film, “What is the story of the woman who doesn’t have an issue with abortion as a procedure, but has an issue with herself as a person in general because she’s in a rough time? It was always about exploring that.” As she speaks, she verbally italicizes words so that “as a person” sounds self-aware rather than psycho-babbly. “When I think about the movie I think about the right to a complex experience. It’s not hard for Donna to choose to have the abortion; she wants it. But it’s all the other moving pieces that are difficult to handle all at once.” That complexity includes more encounters with Max that lead to a lovely, unforced ending.

Strange as it sounds, Donna shares important qualities with the character Slate has been best known for until now, someone with no real face, just an eye, footwear, and an adorable voice. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is a hugely popular stop-motion video—more than 20 million viewers for the short and its sequel—which she made in 2010 with Dean Fleischer-Camp, then her boyfriend, now her husband. (Her initial blush of fame came when she accidentally said “fucking” during her first appearance, in 2009, as a Saturday Night Live cast member; her contract was not renewed.)

Trotting around on the arm of a couch, Marcel has the body of a snail and speaks in a childlike voice that Slate imbues with a sense of wonder. “Guess what I use to tie my skis to my car?” Marcel asks, and answers gleefully, “A hair.” Slate says she is often intrigued by the pairing of vulnerability with a strong sense of self, an idea that helped shape both Donna and the talking shell. “That earnestness in the vulnerability that Marcel has, I think maybe it leaks into a lot of my work,” she says.

That will include more Marcel. A third video and a second book will arrive on November 4, and she and Fleischer-Camp are in the early stages of planning a Marcel movie, which they plan to make independently. It’s already a delight: It is a musical, and Marcel will go to school at The Academy of Tunes.

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All her work is influenced by women whose names at first sound surprisingly before Slate’s time, but of course make perfect sense. “I loved Lily Tomlin, I loved Madeline Kahn, and Amy Irving, Dianne Wiest, and Carol Burnett especially. I just liked women who were funny but they were actresses, you know, their funniness was not separate from their own particular type of how to be a woman. I guess Madeline Kahn was really one of my favorites because she’s very sexy. I love the power of her sexuality,” she says.

Then she mentions an influence that gets to the heart of Donna, Marcel, and so much of Slate’s own style. “I watched a lot of Gilda Radner’s work and loved it,” she says. “But what I liked the most and identified with the most was that she seemed like a kind person, and that is something that’s really important to me in comedy—for there to be pathos in it.”

Acting was always her goal, though. “I started in stand-up because that was the only way that I knew how to try to be an actress in a way that didn’t feel gross or demeaning. You know, all of the cattle call auditions, and the acting classes that take young actors’ money and promise to introduce you to a casting director. I was smart enough to know I didn’t want to do that shit. And I was afraid of a casting couch-type situation, although I’m not sure anybody would even want me on their casting couch,” she says. The self-deprecation is a classic comedian’s move, but then she adds with total confidence, “I always wanted to be a female actress.”