Even the stodgiest, most isolated conservative viewers have had plenty of opportunities, through fictional characters, to feel like they know LGBT — or at least gay and lesbian — people. But it’s likely they haven’t, or have only rarely, seen sympathetic characters who’ve had abortions, as roughly one-third of real-life women will in their lifetime. And this may well have something to do with how little public opinion has shifted on abortion over the past four decades.
It isn’t a perfect comparison, LGBT rights vs. the pro-choice movement. Being queer or trans is a lifelong identity to be unequivocally embraced and celebrated, while an abortion is a single medical procedure that, as such, a patient may want to keep private. The fact remains, though, that visibility is powerful. A few more films and TV shows that tell relatable stories about abortion could go a long way, especially at a time when extremists still threaten clinics and doctors, and “coming out” about having terminated a pregnancy can put a woman at great risk.
So, is Obvious Child one such story, with the potential to make people reevaluate their politics? It’s a complicated question, one tied both to how many Americans will end up seeing Obvious Child and to whether audiences that are ambivalent towards abortion (forget the clinic-terrorizing crowd; they’re hopeless) will connect to its protagonist and her story.
The film’s heroine, Jenny Slate’s Donna Stern, is a disarmingly honest (some might say “oversharing”) comedian who, in the movie’s first few minutes, does a foulmouthed routine about her boyfriend and then gets dumped by the cheating bastard in the bathroom of the same bar where she performed. She is the kind of young woman we’ve seen a lot of recently, mostly on TV, although she’s perhaps the most likable version yet. Donna is less narcissistic than the Girls girls, despite nursing the same career anxieties that plague them; she’s not quite as goofy as Abbi and Ilana of Broad City, but nonetheless, she wouldn’t be out of place sharing a joint and a fart joke with them. Self-destructive at times but essentially sweet, she’s the kind of character I’d like to see at the center of more romantic comedies.
That’s me, though — a 29-year-old Brooklynite who could easily be Donna’s next door neighbor or coworker or best friend. How will a mouthy New York Jewish girl who drinks a lot, talks openly about her sex life, gets pregnant after an exuberantly intoxicated one-night stand, and then shows up at Planned Parenthood to order an abortion like it’s an item on a diner menu play in the red states? Well, she’ll be a harder sell than Kathryn Heigl’s standard rom-com heroine, but there are factors working in her favor: aside from her basic likability, Donna has a great relationship with each of her parents (they’re divorced, alas). The strong community around her also extends to her friends, particularly her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), whose care and concern for Donna is palpable in every scene. And her love interest is the sort of kind, wholesome MBA student that every Middle American mom presumably wants for her daughter.
Obvious Child has a raunchy sense of humor, and it isn’t sentimental about abortion, but its characters (aside from Donna’s ex, fuck that guy) are good people. The movie uses them to pull viewers close instead of making us feel conflicted, like an edgier ensemble might. Therein lies its potential appeal beyond the pro-choice set, if conservatives and undecideds can be persuaded to watch Obvious Child — and that’s assuming they even get to see it.
So far, comparatively few moviegoers have the opportunity to see the film: it only opened in New York and LA over the weekend, but its $27k per-theater-average has its distributor, A24, bragging that Obvious Child “is now poised to become one of the breakout hits of summer.” As Deadline reports, the plan is to roll out the film in major markets over the next few weeks, with plans to go nationwide June 27. It’s still not likely to show up alongside Transformers 4 at the suburban mall multiplex (this list of upcoming engagements suggests it will mostly screen at art theaters in midsized cities and college towns), but it will surely have a wider reach than your average low-budget comedy.
There are other hints that Obvious Child will find a broader audience, too: titans of film comedy, like Edgar Wright and Judd Apatow, are enthusiastically endorsing it to their armies of followers, who are precisely the people who could take it mainstream. (I’d like to see one of them put his money where his mouth is and back Gillian Robespierre’s next movie.) It also seems inevitable that Obvious Child will pop up on demand and stream on Netflix, attracting unlikely new fans along the way. The film has only been out for a week; it’s got a long life ahead of it, one that I imagine will only get bigger when it’s available for anyone to watch at home.
I’m not sure I believe it’s possible for a single movie to effect large-scale political change, and even if it were, Obvious Child isn’t going to be that movie. But I think it has the potential to change individual minds, to make people understand that there are good women who have abortions for good reasons. If Obvious Child starts a trend — if we don’t have to wait another three decades for the next film like it — it could be the best thing to happen to the pro-choice movement in years.