I had never heard of stand-up comedienne and actress Jenny Slate prior to seeing director Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. But to my great delight, by the five-minute mark, I had become quite well acquainted with Ms. Slate’s attitude and delivery. Clocking in at a tight eighty-four minutes, the film rushes to the core of its central character’s brashness as Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), during one of her comedy acts, launches into a barrage of sex and toilet jokes that more than set the stage for the unassuming tale that follows.
The elongated version of Robespierre’s 2009 short film of the same name, Obvious Child’s plot runs like this. Bookstore clerk and aspiring comedienne Donna Stern (Slate), in the wake of being dumped by her boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), has a one-night stand with country boy Max (Jake Lacy). Subsequently, Stern learns not only is the bookstore she’s employed by going out of business, but she is pregnant with Max’s child as well. Faced with mounting troubles, following advice from her friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and Joey (Gabe Liedman), Donna schedules an abortion for Valentine’s Day and wavers on telling Max. However, her budding feelings for him and her trepidation about the abortion procedure pave the way for an uncertain outcome.
This sort of story has been done dozens of times, of course. Movies and television shows have practically abused its outline, frequently with unrealistic, puzzling or downright ludicrous results. What sets Obvious Child apart is the distinct way it handles the material. The honesty and sincerity it introduces to the plot yields an emotional punch that is powerful in its subtlety, taking a firm, often vivacious, intelligent stance on the subject it unabashedly addresses, while flaunting the versatility of its star.
This is Slate’s show, completely. From Stern’s first line of dialog, Slate’s natural screen presence is obvious, her sense of timing and mannerisms: sweetly refreshing. She practically skips through the screenplay with confidence and appeal, a lady with verve. Her character is embedded in a film marketed as a romantic comedy, yet truthfully, at every turn, Obvious Child aspires to be anything but. The impulsive Stern is about as relationship-focused as a fourteen-year old boy in history class and despite the occasional moment of weakness and her undeniable chemistry with Max, a man’s love is not what she is incessantly after, but more an understanding fellow who can successfully manage to interweave himself into her messy, terribly inconsistent life. She is a woman with personal goals that have little to do with settling down or bearing a child, yet more to do with cementing a career as a full-time comedienne and finally, after several years of practice, growing up a smidge and Slate is just the thespian to make such a woman not merely likable, but credible as well.
Even the film’s lighting and look, courtesy of cinematographer Chris Teague, further qualify it as an anti-romantic comedy, tossing aside the bright, vibrant palette you might normally find in a film of this ilk, in favor of apparent natural lighting, but an often lowly lit, dark view. The movie begins in a cramped, shadowy, dimly lit comedy club populated with muted colors and thereafter barely deviates from its introduction’s atmospheric display. The murky, representative environment attractively compliments the characters’ myriad of moods and provides Obvious Child with a tailored, raw platform.
Truly, its unnecessary juvenile humor notwithstanding, there is far more to like about the film than not. The unexpected way it concludes elicits a healthy satisfaction not only because it is severely atypical, but because its characters, ultimately reach decisions that these persons would actually make based on their present respective realities and natures. Their troubles are not conveniently diminished or flushed away to make room for a jovial, storybook ending.
Indeed Slate’s engaging turn as Donna Stern, an immature woman with an unconventional perspective of the world, one she is never afraid to express, powers the plot past mediocrity. She is not interested in being rushed in life, yet evidently has considerable difficulty navigating through it. Still, Ms. Slate’s effortless charm fills the character with a unfiltered energy, becoming Obvious Child’s sole form of oxygen and this vehicle is a rousing commencement for what is sure to be an interesting movie career for the actress. Obvious Child is not without its noticeable errors or for some, a kernel of controversy, but the often delightful authenticity and frankness of its characters as well as the organized succinctness of its tale skillfully evolves it into a film much more stimulating than the accidental love story its basic premise suggests.