Obvious Child (2014)

Posted by June 20, 2014

Usually, when abortion is dealt with or mentioned in film and television, it's the elephant in the room. No one particularly likes to talk about it in real life, and that resistance is usually loudest when a character in a movie or TV show brings up the option after learning of an unanticipated pregnancy. The result is usually an awkward silence or deflection toward another topic, but in "Obvious Child," abortion is treated bluntly. This is a fact of life for Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), and if she never questions her decision, then neither does the film. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre (working from a short film that she co-wrote) approaches what could be a heavy topic with a light sort of gentleness, resulting in a jubilant motion picture actively about clarity and purpose.

Donna is a low-on-the-totem-pole comedienne who operates out of a bar, while holding down a job at a deteriorating bookstore. From our first encounter with Donna, we can see that this is a woman who has insecurities and fears. She uses them in her material, airing out sexual and personal frustrations between her and boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), who promptly dumps her and reveals that he and her best friend have been sleeping together for some time (The ensuing post-break-up mess on her end is both amusing and sobering, summing up the tone that Robespierre is going for). Donna becomes a wreck, although her divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), roommate Nellie (an excellent Gaby Hoffman), and comedian friend Joey (Gabe Liedman) are united on the front that Ryan was simply a jerk.

It's great, we feel, that Donna has this emotional support. Otherwise, she downs wine and, it seems, grape-flavored Tylenol PM like no one's business, functioning with little sleep and frayed nerves that are only matched by her harried habit of cracking a joke to relieve tension. It's important to note that Donna does not seem to relieve tension for the benefit of her audience (a word extended to her peers, not merely a literal audience, in this case) but for herself. That's the reason she tanks in the opening act and a later one, during which she is fall-down drunk and not at all funny. The gift in Slate's radiant, accolades-worthy performance is that she's still gloriously funny.

She meets Max (Jake Lacy) after the meltdown act. He didn't see it, which I'm sure she finds fortunate, and the two bond over public urinating (seriously) and end up having sex in a hysterical montage and flashback sequence (She must remember whether a condom was used). But there's the inevitable catch: Donna knows she's pregnant within three weeks--boob-sore and late and frantic to have something done about it. Her decision is abortion, and here is where Robespierre's screenplay diverges from expectations: Her conscience is clear. It's the only decision that a woman in her position--a depressed and desperate purveyor of humor holding down a job at a closing New York staple--can possibly make, even if it isn't cheap for her (a single payment of $500, which, she laments, is her entire rent).

"Obvious Child" then becomes a romantic comedy of convention but bitter truth, as Donna must muster up the courage to tell Max about her decision. The way she does it, so publicly (Perhaps, by now, you can guess), is one of the year's most uncomfortably funny scenes, because it so succinctly sums up the emotional truth within the film. Here is a woman simply trying to scrape a living by the skin of her teeth. With a hysterical but bitter screenplay, a beautiful spirit, and one of the best lead performances of the year, here is a work of generous, bruised humanity and sympathy. Whether it lands on the end of political controversy, "Obvious Child" is universal enough--even if resolution is a tad tidy and a couple of irksome sidebars could have been avoided--to prove that such reactions are bilge. This is a lovely comedy of the human experience.

Film Information

Jenny Slate (Donna Stern), Jake Lacy (Max), Gaby Hoffman (Nellie), Gabe Liedman (Joey), David Cross (Sam), Richard Kind (Jacob Stern), Polly Draper (Nancy Stern), Paul Briganti (Ryan), Cindy Cheung (Dr. Bernard), Stephen Singer (Gene).

Directed and written by Gillian Robespierre, based on the short film written by Robespierre, Anna Bean, and Karen Maine.

Rated R (language, sexual content).

84 minutes.

Released in select cities on June 6, 2014.