Obvious ChildReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/13/14 12:43:51
Although there are few medical procedures that readily lend themselves to comedy (with the exception of Moe, Larry, Curly and occasionally Shemp administering anesthesia, of course), I think that regardless of where one stands in regards to it on the grand sociopolitical scheme of things, abortion is one of those least likely to help turn a frown upside down. Even films like "Knocked Up" and "Juno"--daring comedies in which abortion could have plausibly played a role in the proceedings--pretty much took the subject off the table as quickly as possible so as to avoid bringing things down. (Besides, if the pregnant characters in those films had gotten abortions, they would have been over by the 30 minute mark at the most.) One of the things that makes the new indie comedy "Obvious Child" so fascinating is that rather than shy away from this normal and legal aspect of everyday life, it deals with it in a disarmingly forthright and direct manner and one of the things that makes it so ultimately worthwhile is that it manages to do it within the context of a frequently hilarious, occasionally touching and ultimately winning narrative, helped in no small part by what should go down as one of the great performances of the year from Jenny Slate, whose work here should do for her career what Ellen Page's turn in "Juno" did for hers.Slate plays Donna Stern, a struggling stand-up comedian who utilizes all aspects of her own life for material that she delivers with absolutely nothing in the way of filters to soften things up. Although the raw and unsparing results can often seem hilarious from the perspective of an audience member, it is a different story entirely for those that she is talking about up on stage and as the film opens, her boyfriend, weary of having every intimate aspect of their lives reduced to comedic fodder night after night, breaks up with her. To make matters worse, Donna learns that the bookstore that provides her with her only steady paycheck will be closing in a couple of weeks and to top things off, she goes on stage the night after all of this has happened after a couple of drinks and delivers a complete bomb of a set. Later that night, however, things begin to perk up a little when she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a straight-laced type who seems like a nice enough guy and, more importantly, did not see her on-stage self-immolation. There are a few more drinks, a retirement to someplace a little quieter and you can no doubt guess what happens next.
Alas, it seems that certain precautions were thrown to the wind that night and a few weeks later, Donna learns that she is pregnant. Clearly recognizing that she is neither financially nor emotionally ready for the challenges of raising a child, Donna, with the encouragement of her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) chooses--as is her legal right, one sadly hastens to add--to have an abortion and even takes a morbid sort of amusement in the fact that the procedure is scheduled for Valentine's Day. Although she is not especially conflicted about this decision--she knows that in her case, it is the best thing to do--but when Max unexpectedly comes back into her life and proves himself to be an almost ridiculously decent guy, the woman who is capable of airing her dirty laundry onstage to complete strangers without a moment's hesitation is completely stymied when it comes to telling him what is going on with her.
Since premiering earlier this year at Sundance, "Obvious Child" has been regularly referred to as an "abortion comedy" but to try to reduce it to that simple log-line does a great disservice to what writer-director Gillian Robespierre has done here, which is to take one of the least believable of film genres--the contemporary romantic comedy--and injects a refreshing breath of realism into the proceedings. In most films of this sort, we are forced to watch ridiculously pretty people with jobs that they never seem to need to go to and spacious apartments they couldn't possibly afford as they fall in love with each other but are kept apart because of an endless string of contrivances before everything works out for them in the last reel. Everyone is glib and gorgeous and if an unplanned pregnancy does somehow come up, it invariably ends happily as boy, girl and baby ride off into a trouble-free sunset. If there is any abrasiveness to be had, it usually comes in the form of a wacky best pal whose various travails serve as a sidebar to the main course of action.
In "Obvious Child," the side character has not only been moved to center stage but has been given a depth that is almost unheard of in the rom-com genre. Instead of making Donna into one of those aggressively quirky and adorable sprites that is usually played by Greta Gerwig, Donna comes across like a real person with real problems who deals with them in ways that feel authentic and not like the machinations of a screenwriter getting from point A to point B. She is smart and funny as can be but is surprised to discover that as fearless as she can be on stage, she can still be intimidated by the idea of talking to one person and that she needs to overcome this in order to grow as a person. When she does manage to achieve this, as in the extraordinary scene in which she confesses to her mother (Polly Draper), with whom she has a somewhat chilly relationship, it is not an overly written triumph of the spirit but a halting form of catharsis that is funny and moving and absolutely convincing. The final scene, the details of which I will not reveal, is also a marvel in the way that it mixes together humor and honesty in ways that will ring true for many viewers.
A great deal of the success of "Obvious Child" comes from the great lead performance from Jenny Slate as Donna. You may recall Slate from her brief stay on "Saturday Night Live" (which was pretty much doomed to failure from the moment she accidentally dropped the "f" bomb on live television on her very first show) or her appearances in projects ranging from "Parks & Recreation" to the last "Alvin & the Chipmunks" movie. With this film, she gets to fully stretch her wings and the results are pretty extraordinary. Obviously, she is able to nail the comedic material throughout (this is one of the few really convincing screen portrayals of a struggling stand-up comic that I can recall) but who could have suspected that she could hit the more dramatic beats with equal skill? Thanks to Slate's deft performance, Donna always feels like a fully dimensional and recognizable person and not just a whimsical construct and as a result, I actually found myself genuinely caring about what was happening with her throughout. This year has already seen amazing performances from the likes of Scarlett Johansson ("Under the Skin") and Marion Cotillard ("The Immigrant") and Slate belongs right up there with them.
There are other reasons to love "Obvious Child" as well. As the guy who starts off being too good to be true and reveals himself to be both good and true, Jake Lacy is impressive and he and Slate make for a fascinating on-screen couple. There are a number of lovely and winning supporting performances as well--besides the aforementioned Hoffman and Draper, there are nice bits from Richard Kind as her understanding father and David Cross as a fellow comedian. Although Robespierre is making her feature debut as a writer-director here, you would hardly know it because she keeps everything moving with such effortless grace as she navigates the tonally challenging material In particular, liked the way that Robespierre presents a hot button topic like abortion in a non-sensational manner that clearly and cleanly advocates its pro-choice position without stooping to lecturing viewers at length on the subject.Of course, those on the other side of the issue could argue that by not presenting the pro-life side of the argument, "Obvious Child" lacks balance. To that, all I can say is that while that may be technically true, it is pretty much irrelevant since that is not what the film is about--the decision is made early on in the proceedings and is presented throughout as the sensible choice for that particular person at that particular point in her life. For those appalled by the idea that a movie would dare to depict such a thing--a legal right, I once again stress--in a supportive light, I would gently suggest that they just skip "Obvious Child" entirely, though doing so will result in them missing what is almost certainly going to go down as one of the best comedies of the year.
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