Let’s talk unwanted pregnancy. It’s at once deeply personal, insanely controversial, terrifying, and common. None of those descriptors are positive, and yet today we are going to be discussing two romantic comedies about women dealing with fetal surprises. Although neither is particularly effective, it’s interesting to see how much humor can help humanize a hot button issue and make us all better consider the individuals affected by these circumstances.

Note: Please bear with me. As I said, I am aware of how sensitive this topic is, and I will do my best to respect the emotions and experiences of folks on all sides. I hope you’ll do the same.

Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Key Cast: Ellen Page, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, JK Simmons, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby

In Short
High school senior Juno gets pregnant by her best friend, Paulie, the first time they have sex. She decides to give the baby up for adoption and finds a couple looking for a child in the Penny Saver. She gets to know and like them quite a lot as her pregnancy progresses, but their relationship proves complicated when the immature Mark declares that he’s leaving Vanessa. A frustrated Juno tries to reconnect with Paulie, but he’s confused by her apparently lack of feelings up to that point. Eventually, they reconcile, and Vanessa agrees to raise the baby as a single mom.

As Cinema
Juno sacrifices story and character development for quirks, spending a lot of time on Juno’s quippy turns of phrase and musical discussions with Mark. The rom-com aspect feels shoehorned in at the end, especially since we see very little of Juno’s feelings about Paulie in the beginning. Vanessa’s character, far and away the most compelling, especially as she navigates her overwhelming desire to be a mom, her relationship, and this new teen-ager in her life, gets short shrift, but her emotional arc feels the most real. It’s a good test run for Reitman and Cody, who teamed up later to make the impeccable Young Adult.

Movie - Juno 1

The Horror
Although Juno wants to be a movie about romantic love, it is at its strongest when it’s exploring what it means to be a mother. Juno is a biological parent, despite her unwillingness. Bren, her stepmother, is trying her best to be supportive, even in the face of Juno’s open acts of rebellion. And Vanessa wants to be a mother, even when it seems like an insurmountable goal. Unlike movies that paint mothers as selfless saints or stepmothers as unforgiving trolls, each of these women are far more human. Mothers are people first, and the movie shows how often those around them forget. It’s an exercise in empathy for both the audience and the supporting characters, and a reminder that motherhood is not particularly natural, despite the bill of good we’re frequently sold in other media.

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Writer: Gillian Robespierre
Key Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind, Nancy Stern

In Short
Donna finds out after her stand up set that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. She spends the next several days drinking and being sad, even bombing a stand up set. It’s in the comedy club that she meets Max, and they spend a drunken night together. Five weeks later, Donna realizes she’s pregnant and decides to get an abortion. However, she’s not far enough along, and she must wait two weeks before her procedure. In those two weeks, she keeps running into Max, and she starts to fall for him. However, she delays telling him about her upcoming procedure. He thinks she’s being cagey and stops returning her calls. He does show up for her comedy set the night before her abortion, in which she shares the details of her choice with the audience. The next day, which happens to be Valentine’s day, as she waits for her cab, Max meets Donna and goes with her. He stays with her afterward, calling it the best and worst Valentine’s Day he’s ever had.

As Cinema
Obvious Child definitely lives up to the former half of the title. It’s trying so hard to normalize and destigmatize abortion that it comes across as an after school special. Gaby Hoffmann, typically a joy any time she pops up on screen, acts as the equivalent of the MS Word Paperclip, but for feminist theory. The message might be good, but the delivery makes it seem cloying. Donna’s relationships with her parents are never totally clear and seem to exist as-needed in the moment. Although Donna herself is a wonderful character, everyone else in her world seems like a caricature or stereotype. In a more stylized version of this story, perhaps told from Donna’s perspective as an unreliable or hyperbolic narrative, this might have worked, but instead it feels like a standard-issue rom com with some edge thrown in.

Movie - Obvious Child 2

The Horror
With all that said, it’s fascinating, helpful, and smart to show abortion from an individual perspective, instead of through political discussion or melodrama. Donna reminded me of many of my friends, and I appreciated her journey with this decision and procedure. It’s a testament to Jenny Slate’s deeply compassionate performance and likeable humor that I would honestly feel comfortable recommending this to my friends who are not pro-choice. Even if they disagree with the message of the movie, it shines a light on the realities of a difficult situation in a way that feels safe and relatable.

Though neither Juno nor Obvious Child are without flaws, I appreciate that these two female-scripted movies showcase an all too frequent dilemma many women face without judgment or scorn. Allowing women agency is tragically rare in cinema, and it is exciting to see two movies that offer it to their characters without judgment for the choices they make. Humor does a lot to build compassion, and both these movies are loaded with laughs that help to humanize their main characters and their responses to unwanted pregnancies.

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