The fine line between movingly personal and irritatingly self-indulgent is pretty much obliterated by “First Comes Love,” autobiographical documentarian Nina Davenport’s video memoir of her decision to have a baby on her own, and the subsequent process of doing that. In tone, Davenport’s film (a genuine chore to watch at 106 minutes) recalls those New York Times Sunday Styles pieces in which annoying people provide first-person accounts chronicling major life events. By the end, this HBO presentation feels like one of those uncomfortable evenings where you visit a friend, and they bore you to death with images of their ultrasound.
At first blush, Davenport’s story ought to be highly relatable, certainly within the obvious quadrants. Entering her 40s and single after the customary struggles with Manhattan dating (dealt with in her earlier doc, “Always a Bridesmaid”), she becomes keenly aware of those around her procreating and concludes she desperately wants to join them, even if that means flying solo.
What ensues, though, is one of those perspective-free exercises, as the filmmaker turns friends and family into her extended supporting cast and behaves like no one has ever experienced maternity before. Nor is there any apparent recognition of the sitcom and romantic-comedy underpinnings of her situation, which could easily be dubbed “Seed in the City.”
Davenport picks a gay friend, Eric, as a sperm donor, and another single pal, Amy, as her birth coach. With the latter, she attends couples therapy to hash out issues, which is more than can be said for her elderly dad, who she harangues (on camera, naturally) for not being supportive, and referring to her potential progeny as a “fatherless child.”
Along the way, the viewer is treated to Davenport’s musings while she reclines in the bathtub and experiences hormone injections. We also get to witness a prolonged childbirth sequence. There are half-baked subplots, including an awkwardly timed relationship with film critic John Anderson, which is naturally complicated by her pregnancy. (Anderson has written for Variety, and for the record, he and I have never met.)
There’s no polite way to say the whole thing has a whiny quality, as well as a sense Davenport was too close to the material to know when to cut. How else to explain interludes like letting her 7-year-old nephew run wild with her camera, for no ostensible reason other than he’s somebody’s kid?
Admittedly, the subject matter theoretically lends itself to HBO — what with the implications and politics of skipping the whole “sitting in a tree” and “then comes marriage” steps of the playground song referenced in the title — but the execution falls well short of its documentary unit’s standard-setting role within the industry.
Davenport certainly has a right to be proud of enduring what appears to have been a grueling process. But that doesn’t make watching “First Comes Love” any less laborious.