There is nothing funny about the pro-choice v anti-abortion culture war that has been intensifying over the past few years, but comedy is proving to be a powerful weapon in it. To the extent that the phrase “abortion comedy” is no longer an oxymoron. You could well apply it to Alex Thompson’s new indie film Saint Frances, whose subject is a 34-year-old underachiever (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the movie) who hasn’t got her life together.
Becoming a nanny is a step forward; getting pregnant with a man she barely knows is a step back. She has no trouble getting a termination, but the film deals honestly with the aftermath, both physical (never has a film been less ashamed about menstruation) and emotional (even if her boyfriend has more issues about it than she does, which he writes down in his “feelings journal”). It does not treat the matter lightly, nor does it present a termination as something shocking or shaming or freighted with guilt.
We have been seeing this more often in recent years, primarily thanks to female film-makers. Gillian Robespierre’s hilarious 2014 film Obvious Child, for example, about another mixed-up young woman: her agonising is not over whether to get a termination but whether to tell the would-be father. Same with Maeve in Netflix’s series Sex Education, who doesn’t relish the procedure but doesn’t beat herself up over it, either; nor does anyone else. The webseries Ctrl Alt Delete went even further: a sitcom set in an abortion clinic.
It is a long way from the days of Mike Leigh’s underground abortionist Vera Drake, or Kate Winslet’s self-administering 1950s wife in Revolutionary Road. And even from 2007, when we had Ellen Page in Juno and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, both smart young women who become pregnant after one-night stands. The respective fathers were hardly prime breeding material (dweeby Michael Cera; stoner Seth Rogen) yet both women chose to keep the babies.
The pro-life side has its own weapons, such as last year’s Christian-backed Unplanned. Based on the true story of a Planned Parenthood worker-turned-anti-abortion activist, it presents both the procedure and the providers as savage and murderous. Propaganda such as this feeds into a situation in the US where Roe v Wade is now in serious jeopardy (a Christian-backed film about that is also in the works), and many women must to go to great lengths to obtain a termination. Hence the plight of the young teens in Eliza Hittman’s recent Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which was decidedly not a comedy. Movies such as Saint Frances do not engage with the macro-debate, but they cannot help but be part of it, simply for treating termination as a difficult but familiar part of existence – and therefore something you are allowed to laugh about.