Tell enough guys the premise of auteur-of-the-self Nina Davenport’s HBO doc First Comes Love, and at least a couple will confirm through their reactions just why First Comes Love matters. The inevitable carping: “Two hours about this unmarried woman’s decision to have a baby? How narcissistic!” Or: “A fortyish Manhattanite getting pregnant on her own is supposed to be news? I know four!” In the film—which is wise, warm, funny, open, and more interested in life as it’s actually lived than any other to debut this summer—that sort of why bother? is trumped by her own father. “Send for the abortionist!” he cries after Davenport tells him she’s pregnant. A couple seconds later, it becomes clear he’s not joking.
No more narcissistic than Proust, and concerned with nothing less than why the drive to mother surges with such power even in women who have built lives fully removed from what earlier generations would have dubbed proper, First Comes Love is, before anything else, a portrait of a longing so deep that even the commandingly articulate Davenport struggles to put it into words. “I have this biological compulsion to have a kid, and I don’t know why,” she says. Her friends, male and female, weigh in. One tells her it is a feeling stirred by all the love inside her; a single mother says, “I could live without being married. It’s disappointing. But if I did not have these kids, I don’t think I could have been happy. I don’t think I could have had a satisfying life.”
That answer may get to why so many men I’ve talked to seem quick to dismiss Davenport’s film. In an age of unprecedented freedoms, especially in a reason-minded blue state, even that most overriding of all impulses—to perpetuate the species—can come to look to the unsympathetic like a self-involved elective, a decision along the lines of taking yoga or going back to grad school. One of Davenport’s father’s objections is that Davenport, being a documentarian, doesn’t have the money to bring up a child in the comfort that she was raised in. His qualms, like even churlish viewers’ will, dissipate the moment he meets the child himself, a beaming dumpling of promise.
He’s cute, but this is Davenport’s story. We see her New York—BFFs and a one-bedroom and a boyfriend who gets involved with her after she’s pregnant with another man’s donated sperm. We see her parents, in home movies, larking on a honeymoon, and discover something of how her father came to be distant. She can’t say why she wants to be a mother. But as we watch her become one, it’s clear she’s made the right decision, that her own satisfaction becomes fully tangled up in caring for the life she’s created. We hear her pee on a pregnancy test, see her body swell up, even witness the baby plop right out of her, followed by a splash of rich fluid. That image of live birth, so often glossed over by a media that presumes it horrific, here is quick and revelatory. Through this mother’s tears and pain, a new self comes squalling out, another regular person whose story, if captured by a journalist/artist/whatever as certain as Davenport, might one day mean the world to us.