The first thing to know about Obvious Child is that it’s about an abortion, one that isn’t canceled at the last minute or made unnecessary by a conveniently timed miscarriage. That alone makes the movie, directed by Gillian Robespierre and released this past Friday, a minor miracle for Hollywood, where abortion rarely makes it onscreen without someone tragically dying as a result. It’s not every movie that gets the Planned Parenthood seal of approval. But what makes the film vital and brave isn’t what makes it the summer’s most exciting comedy: Obvious Child is also riotously funny and earnestly sentimental, the most satisfying romantic comedy I’ve seen in years and a sign that the moribund genre may be returning to good health.
The first time we see Donna Stern (comedian Jenny Slate), she’s on a dimly lit stage telling jokes about her crusty underwear to a mildly appreciative crowd. The confessional stand-up comic at the center of Obvious Child, Donna is an increasingly familiar type—young, aimless, broke, Brooklyn. (See also: Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, the girls of “Broke City.”) Donna has a messy love life and a mouth as filthy as any Apatovian man-child. Fresh from a break-up, she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a clean-cut MBA grad, at a bar and goes home with him; they dance to Paul Simon in their underwear and have sex.
Slate plays Donna with a screwball bravado that’s irresistible, demonstrating a surprising dramatic range. When she realizes she’s pregnant a few week’s later, the main question isn’t what she’s going to do. To Donna, there isn’t really a choice; she’s 28 and broke and about to be laid off from her job at Unoppressive Non-imperialist Bargain Books. Where the characters in Knocked Up couldn’t even say the word—“rhymes with shma-shmortion”—Donna knows exactly what she wants. But she still has all sorts of other choices to make. Should she tell her mother? Should she tell the guy? How will she pay for it?
The story isn’t one we’ve seen onscreen before, but it’s fitted into the structure of a surprisingly conventional rom-com, from initial meet-cute to final romantic gesture. The traditional romantic comedy is dead, you may have heard, killed by the international market and Katherine Heigl and—most of all—the changing nature of modern romance. (You can read the obituaries in New York Magazine and The Atlantic and Hollywood Reporter and L.A. Weekly.) “Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome,” Chris Orr wrote in The Atlantic last year. “And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by.” Class, parental disapproval, geographic distance: None of these are dealbreakers anymore. Ubiquitous communication technology removes another barrier. Is there something about modern love that doesn’t lend itself to rom-com storytelling?
But if the rituals of courtship have become more stable, they’ve grown even more bewildering, as anyone who has read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. can attest. (That novel begins with an awkward encounter with a former flame who Nathaniel ignored after accompanying to Planned Parenthood.) Obvious Child is covering the same territory, mining the ambiguities of modern dating for plausible obstacles to love. What’s the etiquette when you're on a second date with the guy whose abortion you’re getting? (What’s the grammatically correct way to even construct that sentence?) What are the expectations for him? This isn’t exactly the stuff of You’ve Got Mail, even if it, amazingly, shares that movie’s sweet spirit. There's a frankness here that put Knocked Up's gross-out humor to shame.
Toward the end of Obvious Child, Slate’s character looks at a Netflix queue full of romantic comedies and says that she “hates that kind of movie”—she just can’t relate. Watching something like this would probably change her mind.