Based on a short film of the same name, Obvious Child is the debut feature by Gillian Robespierre. It’s also the debut screenplay for Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm. Additionally, it’s the first lead role for Jenny Slate, a young, veteran television and internet actress.
Lots of new talent. Lots to like.
Obvious Child is a little bit romantic comedy and a little bit character study, focusing on Slate’s Donna Stern. Donna is a stand-up comedian whose material is deeply rooted in the personal. If there is an embarrassing detail about herself, be it her underwear or sex-life, Donna will riff on it. This is true even if her boyfriend is in the audience. Well, that turns out to be ex-boyfriend as the movie begins. After performing a set, Donna is dumped, a fact that leads to significant amounts of alcohol and even more confessional stand-up routines.
At one of these ramblings about Donna’s desire to murder-suicide her ex, she meets Max (Jake Lacey), the kind of nice, sincere and natural guy that at first glance borders on boring. The pair hit it off though, leading to a night of drunken debauchery and sex. Where the condom was in said sex is a mystery. Despite the fun evening together, Donna doesn’t look to continue things with Max. Then she finds out she is pregnant. Sure that is an abortion is her choice, Donna then ends up reconnecting with Max, unsure of what to tell him and what not to.
The film is something special, a comedy with a heart and a central character that is unique, yet universal. Slate is terrific here, with a pinch of fumbling, genuine and funny. Where her part could easily be mishandled and folded into a cloying mess, Slate seems like someone just getting her act together amidst the bottoming out. Her rapport with Lacey’s Max is cute and playful. Though it isn’t entirely clear why he is so interested in her, their banter is clever without being overwritten. The supporting cast is notable, with small, effecting turns by Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind and Polly Draper.
The script does an impressive job of dealing with the abortion discussion. There is never a sense that Donna is interested in keeping the fetus. That doesn’t mean Donna isn’t allowed complicated feelings about the situation. What, if anything, to say to Max, how the procedure will feel and the emotions that will linger afterwards are all on the table. Obvious Child successfully touches on these topics and remains hilarious in a wild balancing act; Robespierre nails it in her direction.
It’s all so natural and breezily entertaining, that the one major hiccup is kind of surprising. The movie does succumb to a rom-com cliché at about an hour in, when the possible new couple runs up against a miscommunication/obstacle that feels like the writers plopping in plot trouble merely to raise emotional stakes.
That all turns back towards the positive in its closing minutes, a lovely anecdote to the need for collapsing buildings and guns cranking out round of ammo as the only way to end a movie in summertime.
Obvious Child opens in limited release in Seattle tomorrow.