"She's going to decide to keep the baby right at the end of the movie."
That's what a colleague whispered to me during writer/director Gillian Robespierre's endearing, important romantic comedy, Obvious Child, a film that has earned raves on the festival circuit. Much of the acclaim was targeted at the breakout performance of star Jenny Slate, a comedian/actress/writer with a raw, untamed comedic approach that has earned her tons of fans before, and is guaranteed to earn her more now. The reason I highlight my friend's premonition is because, despite the film's title, the charm of Obvious Child is that it doesn't go where anyone expects it to.
As budding New York stand-up comedienne Donna Stern (Slate) treats her audience to a series of filthy gags about her leaky vagina, it's clear this is not going to be some sweet and bubbly rom-com. Everything about Obvious Child, from the script to the performances, exudes honesty even when embracing conventional genre aspects. Stern is something of a mess at life but that makes for good material in her raunchy act. She gets a wealth of fresh material when a tsunami of crap crashes over her all at once; Donna's scumbag boyfriend cheats then dumps her; she loses her perfectly lazy job at the local book store; and then the rebound sex she has with nice-guy Max (Jake Lacy) results in a pregnancy. It's right here that we'd expect the film to book passage to Juno but in a novel twist, Donna decides to have an abortion. It's not treated as some wholly spectacular thing, which makes Robespierre's script all the more memorable and brave. Donna and her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, playing normal for once), the latter experienced in such matters, have a discussion that is funny, frank, and sounds unrehearsed. In essence, it sounds like a genuine conversation about the real-life impacts of Donna's decision, and not just a stream of talking points designed to make you feel one way or another. You aren't meant to condone or reject Donna for the choice she makes, just go along with her on a messy ride full of rejection, triumphs, fear, and definitely lots of laughter.
Even if the easy shorthand of "abortion comedy" is understandable in a way, the labeling of Obvious Child as such diminishes what this movie is really about, and that's one woman trying to sort out her bizarre existence. She seems drawn to her protective, man-child father (Richard Kind) but her abrasive academic mother (Polly Draper) has clearly had an impact, mostly for the negative. Donna is a woman trying to find herself, and while she's lost there's the easy-to-please preppie Max who sees how incredibly unique she is. Audiences will see it, too, and fall in love with Donna thanks to Slate's performance. This is a game changer for Slate, an actress best known for stealing scenes on Parks & Recreation or The Kroll Show. We've never seen this fragile and human side of her before; her gift for physical comedy (the faces she makes are always perfect) and perfect timing keep the tone light. And while tackling a lead role may be new for her, Slate gets plenty of help from a reliable supporting cast of Hoffmann, David Cross, and Gabe Liedman.
All things being equal we'd be talking about Slate as a potential Oscar contender. That's how good she is and how perfectly chaotic she is in this role. But we're talking about Hollywood and Obvious Child may be too small of a movie to get the awards attention it deserves later in the year. The upside to the small amount of controversy it has faced is more people checking the film out and realizing a small film can sometimes achieve greatness.