Silly is important. Its strange power overwhelms, undercuts and disobeys, a giddiness that is essential in times of straightness and rigidity. It is the crucial cry against seriousness and a laugh in the face of obedience.
In Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, part-time stand-up comedian Donna (Jenny Slate) yearns for a career in being silly. When she’s not reveling in toilet humour on stage she makes her dad laugh by hanging spaghetti out of her mouth, and hides in cardboard boxes when she needs a time out. In my favourite scene, Donna and her one-night stand, Max (Jake Lacy), dance in their underwear to Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child”. Robespierre makes the moment a reminder of the joy in the mundane, and the restorative magic of childishness. Just as Simon sings, “The cross is in the ballpark,” so Robespierre reminds us that life’s trials can be shouldered when one is playful.
After their night of fun, Donna realises she’s pregnant and immediately knows she wants an abortion. Unlike so many other films about abortion, Donna never changes her mind. Max’s sweet nature and Donna’s lack of responsibility might have otherwise set the scene for a baby, for the obvious (and inevitable) child. But instead, Robespierre explores the other story of abortion, a story that affects women across the world. During Donna’s confessional comedy set, she tells her audience that she knows it’s going to be okay because she’s not alone. Of course Donna is not alone, as some half a million women terminate their pregnancy per year in the U.S.
Robespierre never punishes Donna for her silliness, using comedy as a means for her to express her feelings towards her own abortion experience. She allows Donna the space to remain childish and silly, even about the taboo of abortion that still haunts contemporary cinema. For me, the film is a defence for the silly and the childish which lurks in those moments of apparent rigidity, ready to dance and disrupt, to claim its hold once again. Right when we need this destabilising power and disobedient force, we should pay attention to silliness. And Robespierre certainly does.
Jess Hannington is an English Literature PhD candidate studying at The University of Sheffield where she also teaches on film. Her work focuses on the work of contemporary American female filmmakers and the way the often uncomfortable influence of canonical male auteurs is mediated in their films.