It’s an article of faith in Hollywood that an audience will never feel sympathy or empathy toward a woman character who has an abortion.
This conventional wisdom is so firmly held that the two best-known comedies in the past decade about young single pregnant women — “Juno” and “Knocked Up” (both 2007) — dismissed the option with little discussion. (In “Knocked Up,” the word “abortion” is never used, and only once obliquely referred to as a “smash-smortion.”)
So when “Obvious Child” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, many commented on how big a risk director-writer Gillian Robespierre was taking by focusing a romantic comedy-drama on a female character who decides to undergo an abortion.
Months later, as “Obvious Child” rolls into theaters nationwide (opening Friday, June 27, at Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Cinema), Robespierre downplays the idea that she’s breaking any Hollywood taboo.
“It’s been in movies, in the periphery,” Robespierre said in a recent phone interview. She cited as an example Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the classic 1982 high-school comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as precedent.
“We just wanted to tell a story about a woman who is actually funny, and looks and sounds like us, and has all the best jokes in the movie, and also has a face and has a positive experience with a shame-free abortion,” Robespierre said.
The story behind “Obvious Child” began, Robespierre said, with the 2009 short film she made with her best friends, Anna Bean and Karen Maine. That short (which Robespierre is prepping to be included on the feature film’s eventual DVD release) centered on Donna (Jenny Slate), a stand-up comedian, discussing onstage her decision to have an abortion.
In writing the feature version, Robespierre said, “we stayed true to the heart of the short.” She expanded Donna’s circle, creating her friends (played by Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman) and her divorced parents (Polly Draper and Richard Kind), and creating the romantic conflict by introducing Max (Jake Lacy), a nice guy with whom Donna has her life-changing one-night stand.
“We wanted the conflict in the film to be about whether Donna is going to have the courage to let someone in, post-breakup,” Robespierre said.
Robespierre and Slate, a gifted comic actress and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, worked together to hone Donna’s stand-up voice.
“Jenny and Donna are not anything alike,” Robespierre said. “Jenny lent us her [stand-up] style, which is a very confessional and storytelling style. … Donna is totally wild, not controlled, not a stand-up of 10 years. She’s so much more confessional. I don’t think Jenny would talk about her husband the way Donna talks about her ex-boyfriend.”
And Slate’s performance, Robespierre said, underlines how seriously Donna takes the decision to abort her pregnancy.
“She’s a character who you can see in each scene is thoughtful,” Robespierre said. “It’s not a choice that’s light or easy. It’s just something that she needs to do.”
“The reality is that millions of women face unplanned pregnancies each year,” Robespierre said. “Each story, each experience with that procedure and that moment in your life, is so different and varies so much.…
“This is just Donna’s story and her experience,” Robespierre said. “We wanted Donna’s experience to be safe, to lift the stigma of judgment and shame, and to humanize the choice, and do it with humor, and do it with characters that hopefully people connect to.”
The romantic comedy-drama “Obvious Child” opens today at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.