I tried stand-up comedy once. I wasn’t very good at it. But as any successful comic will tell you, this is how everyone’s first, second, and hundredth attempts at stand-up go. Some have even gone so far as to call stand-up one of the world’s hardest professions. Still, the whole process terrified me. After that first set, I was one and done. I quit.
Perhaps that’s where my admiration for Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) first began to take form. Obvious Child opens on Donna telling a stunningly funny series of observational jokes at a small bar in Brooklyn. Her perfectly-timed humor is biting and clever—everything that I never was. But more importantly, her material is fearless. Some jokes are gross, and some are sad, but all of them are soul-searingly honest. This is a good representation of Jenny Slate’s character.
Donna isn’t complex in the manufactured, over-workshopped Hollywood sense of the word. She is a real person, something much more difficult to convey as an actor. Slate is up to the task. Finally able to break free of her one-note roles in Parks and Recreation and Bob’s Burgers, she skips from emotion to emotion with a breezy effortlessness.
Having range for a film like this is necessary, because the heart of Obvious Child is its challenging central premise. Donna has a one night stand with a stranger named Max (Jake Lacy) and soon after learns she is pregnant. After careful consultation with friends and family, she decides to get an abortion.
Owing to taboo, there is an inherent novelty in designing a romantic comedy around abortion. It is remarkable how much plot the film is able to squeeze out of this conceit. Moments as simple as going to Planned Parenthood for counseling or sitting in a waiting room at a clinic become fascinating to watch because they haven’t been done before. Sometimes these scenes overbear and feel like “edutainment,” but the film rarely feels preachy. Donna’s struggle is handled tastefully, and the the film always veers away from political propagandizing.
Gillian Robespierre, in her first time writing and directing a feature-length film, offers a master class in tonal balance. Obvious Child is at points uproariously funny and will certainly be remembered as one of the best comedies of the year. Yet, it also handles its incredibly serious subject matter with brazen candor. The film nevertheless feels cohesive due largely to Robespierre’s spotless dialogue and sensitive character development.
In particular, Donna comes across as perhaps the best-written female character I’ve ever seen onscreen. She is confident in her femininity while retaining her own agency and opinions. She is brave and smart, but also thoughtful and contemplative. She doesn’t need to kick anyone’s ass to prove that she’s her own person. She is, in other words, a real, living woman. That shouldn’t be worth noting in 2014, but such is the state of gender portrayal in movies. A new standard has been set; I hope Hollywood is paying attention.
Likewise, Max is a similarly well-conceived character. He acts and responds realistically to Donna’s predicament and his emotional struggle is transparent and endearing. Lacy, who was an an easy highlight of the final seasons of The Office (US), transforms his charming charisma into great chemistry with Jenny Slate. Although he is rarely in the spotlight—this is Donna’s story through and through—Lacy’s performance ties up the back-end of the film nicely.
I once saw Lewis Black perform at the Calvin Theatre. Amidst his usual ranting, I remember one moment where he took a break from his set to address the audience. He used that time to talk about how amidst all the blue comedy that exists in the world, the one topic that no comedian ever jokes about is abortion. For some reason, he said, that’s the line no one will cross.
It hasn’t been much of a topic in movies, either. Perhaps the idea of such a bleak story seems like box office suicide. But Robespieere makes it work as she taps innate broad appeal of romantic comedy. This is a brilliant choice because it means she can bring the issue of abortion to a wider audience.
I’ve always been a firmly pro-choice guy, but about halfway through this movie I realize I’ve never given the subject a lot of thought. And judging by the gasps and murmuring I heard in the audience as Donna scheduled her abortion appointment and learned how much her procedure would cost, I’m willing to bet most people don’t know, don’t talk about, and don’t think about abortion—no matter where they stand on the issue.
This film opens up that dialogue in a way that hasn’t been done before. It puts a human face on something that has become obfuscated by political mudslinging and ideological rhetoric, and that is significant. Obvious Child is already an excellent comedy, but I think it’s an essential one, too.
Movie Verdict: Win