Authentic and unapologetically frank, writer/director Gillian Robespierre and lead Jenny Slate bring us a story that almost never graces the screen, and they do it with style, grace, and one hell of a wit.
Here we meet twentysomething Brooklynite Donna Stern, a bookstore clerk and aspiring professional stand-up comic. Thus far life has been fairly ordinary and comfortable: strong relationships with her [albeit divorced] parents, a college education, no real responsibilities (other than those pesky student loans), and a flair for the stage where her ribald zest for life displays in all its prurient glory.
All’s going well until Donna’s beloved lowers the boom, sending her swirling into a post-breakup vortex of epic proportion, alleviated temporarily by an overnight fling with Max, a sincere and charming fellow from an audience. Temporary alleviation, however, becomes permanent problem when Donna shows up pregnant.
Thus begins life’s onslaught of the womanchild formerly known as Donna. Carefreedom reveals itself to be irresponsibility, winsomeness to be immaturity, and the microphone to be not where Donna shines, but to be the only vehicle whereby she can truly communicate.
Thus confronted with her unpreparedness, she opts to terminate the pregnancy. Now comes time to break the news – but to whom? And when? And how on earth to do it?
Between decision and deed, we join Donna on her spectacularly hapless and hilarious journey during which Max, unaware of the circumstances, continues to pursue her romantically and in so doing proves himself to be an actual, bona fide adult (which of course renders him undateable).
Jenny Slate turns in a starmaking performance as Donna, permeated with energy, zest, struggle, and vulnerability. Whatever one thinks of Donna’s decision and its implementation, it’s hard not to recognize the sincerity with which she approaches her life, and for that Slate deserves full credit.
Slate and Jake Lacy (as would-be inamorato Max) enjoy a delightful chemistry as well, portraying a perfect awkwardness in their differences all the more charming for their resulting affection. It’s a true case of opposite attraction reaching beyond the obvious Jewish/WASP, extrovert/introvert, wanton/buttoned-down and moving into the nuance of emotional skittishness/presence, cowardice/courage, and thoughtlessness/forgiveness. We can so easily see why each is attracted to the alien creature before them, viewing the other as emotional peril personified even as they bumble forward (well, as Donna bumbles; Max is pretty darned settled… which of course renders him undateable).
Most impressive about “Obvious Child” is the exceptional skill with which Gillian Robespierre manages her moments. The bawdiness of Donna’s comedic routines and general demeanor – which include everything from farting to bad breath to things I won’t even mention here – not only entertains, but also gently conditions us for the discussions of the physical expectations of abortion. In bringing us fully into Donna’s physicality in general, we’re able to follow her into a conversation many have had, have never had, and perhaps not even been willing to have.
Additionally, Robespierre’s riotous humor perfectly complements her proportionally serious content; she never brings humor to the subject of abortion itself, but keeps us ever in a relaxed frame of mind that allows us to visit it without becoming lost in its severity. I’m reminded of “50/50”, where I remarked at the skill required to keep us laughing heartily throughout the story of a young man very likely dying of cancer. No small trick there, and a filmmaker who can tune to that frequency deserves real attention (and funding).
If “Obvious Child” bears one flaw, it’s in its hyperfocus on Donna’s own experience. Granted, such a flaw is eminently arguable, since no cinematic law requires that we see anything outside the personal story our filmmakers wish to tell, but because the subject of abortion is so highly charged, a deeper exploration would have served not necessarily the story, but the film itself.
Unless one is truly of the mind that nothing much exists and thus the procedure amounts to little more than having a mole removed, the subject warrants a bit more exploration than was granted here.
Even though staunchly pro-choice, many viewers nonetheless recognize a gravity to the decision that did not come across, which will be seen as a failing. It’s a bold and welcome act to present a story like Donna’s, and interests of societal communication and autonomy are well-served by affording it the widest possible audience.
This of course assumes that Robespierre and company have any interest in garnering the larger audience; no cinematic law requires this either. But she and Slate have produced such wonderfully astute work, it’s a shame to restrict their reach any more than inherently necessary.
To those concerned that this element is not being made known, take comfort and queue up the brilliant “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her” and Season 4, Episode 11 of “Sex and the City”, entitled “Coulda Woulda Shoulda”. These excellent explorations assert the reasonableness of including abortion among the options available to a free woman, while also reminding us that it is not one without consequence, undoable and perhaps permanently informing one’s identity.
It’s this sense of consequence that’s missing from “Obvious Child”, and given the skill with which every other aspect was rendered, I would very much like to have seen this explored. Nevertheless, its ending rings true to our heroine’s experience and to its identity as a romantic comedy, and the skill with which the team crafts its delicate balance deserves close study by any aspiring filmmaker.
Unless you’re patently opposed to Donna’s having the option at all, mark your calendar and prepare to blush …
Story: Spiraling down a brutal post-breakup vortex, a twentysomething comic finds herself facing an unplanned pregnancy and all the grownup conversations that come with it.
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Drama
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross
Directed by: Gillian Robespierre
Website: Official Facebook
Running time: 84 minutes
Houston release date: June 27, 2014 at the Landmark River Oaks theater
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or the Landmark website
Screened June 19th 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX