When Nina Davenport, the “Operation Filmmaker” director whose new personal doc, “First Comes Love,” premieres on HBO tonight at 9pm, gives birth to her son Jasper at age 41, she does so surrounded by an amusingly large group of friends, including the father of the baby. “I didn’t expect the hospital to let so many people into the delivery room,” she observes dryly in voiceover. What she isn’t accompanied by is a husband.
Davenport, finding herself single going into her 40s, decided that if she wanted to have a biological child, she wasn’t going to be able to do it in the traditional fashion referenced in the title — by meeting Mr. Right, marrying him and then getting pregnant. Instead, Davenport enlists a somewhat reluctant gay pal to donate his sperm and the support of various others in her life, including her best friend Amy, to accompany her on her journey toward being a single mother, one she chronicles on camera.
Davenport’s film is a warm, open-hearted journey that does a better job with exploring its author’s experiences than those of the growing groups of single mothers of which she’s a part. “First Comes Love” makes some cursory nods in that direction — Davenport stops by the apartment of an acquaintance who’s readying to learn the results of what she’s decided will be her final attempt at getting pregnant, and she talks to another who had two kids on her own, ones she frazzledly attempts to manage while doing the interview.
There is a continual sense that there’s a whole other doc that could be made about the larger phenomenon of single women, particularly in New York, who due to dating difficulties, commitment-phobia, a focus on career or a whole host of other reasons find themselves approaching the end of their childbearing years without a standard structure in place to have a child. A visit to the doctor with a single, pregnant friend suggests how increasingly common her situation is becoming, but raises many questions — including ones about economics and work — the film doesn’t attempt to explore.
Instead, for the most part, Davenport keeps the camera on her own path, and it’s plenty to fuel a film, as she looks at her wealthier siblings and their nuclear families, at footage of her mother, who passed away, and her old school father, who isn’t shy about expressing his feelings that Davenport is making a mistake in going into parenthood alone, and who often is shown in shots with a newspaper up in front of his face. (At one point, he advises her to get an abortion, though when his grandson does arrives, he’s charmed.) The Midwestern childhood home she travels back to, the siblings with their beautiful houses and law careers, stand in contrast to the more bohemian life she has in New York, the one-bedroom apartment with the crumbling ceiling and the host of supportive friends.
“First Comes Love” ends up making a powerful case for families of choice — not as opposed to traditional ones necessarily, but certain in addition to. When Davenport comes home from the hospital with Jasper, Amy, Eric (the biological father) and another friend end up crashing at her apartment to help her through the first few days.
Film critic John Anderson, whom Davenport starts dating after she gets pregnant, also becomes a passing father figure for Jasper, though he and the filmmaker end up having a discussion about the side effects of all these people coming through her child’s life and about who he’s supposed to count on sticking around as he gets older when the ties are more tenuous and roles less clearly definied. Both Amy and Eric, interestingly, attempt to set boundaries with Davenport early in the film, stressing that they can’t be expected to always be there for her and Jasper, though they get pulled into the experience more, it seems, than they ever planned.
That messiness is actually kind of wonderful — the sense that even as Davenport plunges into this experience without the structures in place that her father insists she needs, new supports arise to help her along. The imperfection of it, the unsteadiness is what gives the film a sense of tremulous vulnerability — she is no more certain of how this will work than anyone else in her life, and lets us see how terrified and thrilled by the giant shift in her life she is. It’s not your typical romance, but it is a film about a different sort of falling in love, and it’s a trip worth taking with the filmmaker.