Obvious Child review
 Alibi V.23 No.26 • June 26-July 2, 2014 

Film Review

Obvious Child

Pro-choice dramedy is pregnant with possibility

Obvious Child

Directed by Gillian Robespierre

Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann

Not even a half-caf mocha frap can save this day.
Not even a half-caf mocha frap can save this day.

Donna Stern is having a very bad ... well, let’s just call it life. She’s a twentysomething comedian struggling for some sliver of recognition in New York City’s crowded stand-up scene. Valentine’s Day is looming, and she’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. (No big deal. He was a jerk anyway, but she has yet to reach that conclusion.) Also, she’s broke, and the used bookstore where she works is closing its doors. Donna tries lifting her spirits by sleeping with a nice, cute guy she meets at a club. But—cherry on the crap sundae—she ends up pregnant.

Obvious Child, the mood-straddling debut feature from writer-director Gillian Robespierre, stars up-and-comer Jenny Slate (famous for her edgy work in “Saturday Night Live,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Kroll Show,” and as the creator of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”). Slate is our main character, Donna, a role so suited to her it feels almost uncomfortably autobiographical. Donna is pushing the upper limits of her 20s and doesn’t seem to be making much headway, either personally or professionally. But she’s perfectly happy crafting elaborate fart jokes at her neighborhood comedy club on a weekly basis—at least until the above-mentioned chain of events leaves her impoverished and preggers.

It’s weird—for a lot of reasons—to call Obvious Child an “abortion comedy.” But that’s pretty much what it is. It’s basically the more cynical, world-weary flipside of Juno. Donna decides to terminate her pregnancy and schedules a doctor’s appointment—which, for ironic purposes, happens to end up right on Valentine’s Day. The bulk of the movie takes place over a two-week period leading up to that fateful appointment, during which our protagonist bemoans her fate, commiserates with friends, fights with her parents, spills her guts on stage and tries her best to avoid the guy who knocked her up.

We’ve also seen more than our share of indie films about troubled young hipsters struggling to grow up. Most of these, to be fair, have concentrated on men. So it’s nice to get a little female perspective both behind and in front of the camera.

Slate is the star in more ways than one here, carrying the film entirely on her back. It’s a delicate operation. The setting (Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood) borders on way-too-hipster. The comedians-playing-comedians setup is dangerously self-referential. And the subject matter is super touchy (particularly for comedy). One minute things are gleefully profane, the next they’re painfully poignant. Donna has made up her mind, and it’s not the wrong decision for her—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hard row to hoe. Slate pulls it off, giving a nuanced performance that is naughty-funny, deeply melancholy and totally real.

Certain ingredients contained within Obvious Child will be familiar. The bones of a really messed-up romantic comedy are there—complete with wisdom-spouting best friend, relationship-impeding hidden truth and impossibly sweet boyfriend material (Jake Lacy From “Better With You” and “The Office”). We’ve also seen more than our share of indie films about troubled young hipsters struggling to grow up. Most of these, to be fair, have concentrated on men. So it’s nice to get a little female perspective both behind and in front of the camera. While Obvious Child doesn’t exactly break new ground in the plotting and character departments, it earns serious cred for trying its best to be honest and real about everything.

Even so, a lot of audience members won’t find any of this the least bit funny. The scatalogical comedy routines do veer toward the juvenile. Then again, that’s sort of the point. These aren’t supposed to be big-time, super-successful comedians. They’re just people who think diarrhea is funny. On top of that, the very word “abortion,” kinda like the word “Auschwitz,” is pretty much a joke killer. Hell, Knocked Up trod vaguely similar ground, but didn’t have the guts to even say the word out loud. Obvious Child does that. And more. It’s a brave film that attempts to nail its humor not with hilarious punchlines, but by establishing a sense of knowing familiarity with its audience. We may not have been down this exact road, but we know where it’s going.