Obvious Child (2014) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexual content
Running Time: 84 min.
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Polly Draper, Richard Kind, David Cross
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Screenplay: Gillian Robespierre
Review published June 29, 2014
"Saturday Night Live" alum Jenny Slate (The Lorax, This Means War) could end up getting lots of offers after her starring debut in Obvious Child, with a performance so pitch-perfect, you will be surprised to learn that she didn't write and direct it herself. The actual author of the film is Gillian Robespierre, in her first feature length effort, adapted from a short film she had originally directed and co-wrote in 2009, which also starred Slate in the same role. Though this fleshed-out film isn't particularly long at just over 80 minutes, it never feels padded, as Robespierre has much more time to explore the characters and their peculiar views on life in a rich and refreshing way that makes us understand just why they're doing the sometimes oddball things they do. There are a few contrivances (especially in how the would-be lovers keep meeting), but the honesty of the characterizations and performances, along with the uniqueness of its approach, elevate the material above the clichés.
Slate plays a Brooklyn-ite named Donna Stern, who lives with her best friend Nellie (Hoffman, Veronica Mars) while working in a small bookstore that's on the verge of shutting its doors for good. At the same time, she often airs out her intimate personal frustrations in a stand-up comedy act at night at a local club. Fresh from a jilting by her boyfriend, who has left her for her best friend, Donna is reeling from the pain of the break-up, but finds a temporary ray of light when she meets Max (Lacy, "The Office"), a preppy business school student with whom she ends up having a one-night stand. Weeks later, when Max continues to pursue her romantically, the comedian who regularly dishes her every detail to a room full of total strangers struggles to find the words to tell him that she is pregnant and intends to abort. And yet, she finds this man, who is a mismatch for her in so many ways, such a good and decent man, she has a hard time just telling him outright to go away.
The subject matter of abortion is a tricky one to bring to comedy, as the practice of it is already deemed reprehensible by various religious groups in the country, many who will no doubt find what they deem as 'murder' an exceedingly offensive topic to build a whimsical rom-com around. Most within that group will likely avoid the film altogether, though some who are adventurous (or oblivious) enough to give it a go will still likely have strong issues with the perceived too-casual attitude toward abortion espoused by many characters in the film, who view it as an inconvenience more than anything. I won't comment on the politics of the situation except to state that the film isn't trying to have fun or make a funny topic out of abortion, as the film's more profound and serious moments stem from the inherent sadness of the situation. It merely depicts in an honest and forthright manner the prevailing attitude of some women who grew up in a time and place where the practice is legal and accepted as an option; to moralize one way or another would make this a much different film than Robespierre intends, so she avoids it altogether without overt commentary.
Even if you get beyond this, Robespierre is fixated quite a bit on bathroom humor a good deal more than you'd expect in a film written by a woman and of appeal largely to a female audience. The inability to control flatulence, peeing in public, grimy underwear discharge, stepping in dog poop, and a smattering of other little gross observations comprise of the bulk of the non-sexual humor in the film, so your mileage will certainly vary in terms of how amusing this all is. For me, while I don't necessarily find it humorous in and of itself, it is delivered with a certain degree of matter-of-factness which also bears light on people's relationships with one another. It's almost a litmus test of intimacy among the characters in the film that they can expel waste in front of one another and feel comfortable, which in its own way establishes early on that these are people who are just comfortable being themselves and don't care what anyone else thinks. It also serves to highlight that though Donna is approaching 30 years of age, she is still stuck in a juvenile state of mind, clinging to an adolescent outlook on life, which includes bathroom function fixation, that has kept her in a life limbo for over a decade.
I only mention the paragraph above because I want to tell you not to expect a completely funny and sweet romantic comedy (though I do think that it is nevertheless), so much as one that's OK with letting you see its characters in a far-less-than-perfect light. Donna is shown as being a bit of a hot mess, stuck in a state of arrested development borne from her inability to accept making life-altering decisions. In one interesting scene, Donna insulates herself from the world by getting inside a packing box, as if she finds comfort in being shielded by the change around her (in this case, she is packing up the remnants of the book store that is closing, forcing her to do something else with her life). While most characters such as this would make you want to yell at her to snap out of it and get on with her life, Slate plays the role in a sweet and nuanced way, such that we continue to like her as a character, even if we don't think she makes wise decisions, and occasionally treats others with a degree of impertinence they don't deserve.
In the end of the film, we realize that Obvious Child isn't a film about abortion so much as it's about the maturation process that occurs when we finally are forced to make big decisions in life. If you can get past the hot-button main premise, you'll likely find Obvious Child a funny, poignant and honest coming-of-age tale about people who are already of age.
©2014 Vince Leo