I truly pity the person who immediately dismisses writer/director Gillian Robespierre's damn near brilliant indie gem Obvious Child because it is, in fact, a comedy about a stand-up comic named Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, Parks & Recreation/Saturday Night Live) who gets dumped, who gets depressed, who gets drunk, who gets knocked up, and who plans without much drama at all to get an abortion.
Yep, you heard me right. Obvious Child is that rare abortion comedy that works, though it would certainly be unfair and inaccurate to actually reduce the film to being "an abortion comedy." While Donna's intentions drive pretty much everything that happens in the film, Obvious Child is much more about Donna and her relationships with friends, family, and Max (Jake Lacy, The Office), the guy who isn't even remotely her type but who becomes her type after a few drinks.
Been there. Done that.
The film is based upon Robespierre's 2009 short film of the same name and also starring Slate as Donna. It is beyond refreshing to have a film that is so committed to its honesty and its authenticity. It's that honesty and authenticity that permeates pretty much every fiber of Donna's being. Donna is one of those stand-up comics whose intimate life details are brought to life onstage much to the joy of those in the audience who love her and much to the dismay of pretty much anyone in her life who happens to be the subject of her humor. In the film's first five minutes, Donna's stand-up routine just happens to involve her less than stellar sex life with her in attendance boyfriend.
It's probably not a huge surprise where it goes from there. Consoled by her ever loyal friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, Veronica Mars/Nate & Margaret), her always doting but hilariously honest father (Richard Kind, Argo/Cars 2), and encouraged to get a real job and to use her "780 Verbal" for more than telling diarrhea jokes by her mother (Polly Draper), Donna downward spirals until one late night encounter and one really big mistake with Jake, a young man so straightlaced that Donna refers to him as a Christmas tree and to herself as the Menorah that will burn it all down.
At a mere 84 minutes, Obvious Child is also one of those increasingly rare films that tells its story and gets out without wasting a single minute of the film's running time on unnecessary distractions or plot threads. As a film writer and occasional stand-up comic myself, I found myself completely captivated by how Donna is portrayed her and how Robespierre and Slate do a terrific job of not reducing Donna to a one-note comic either a f***ed up mess or a comic who's simply bold and brash because it works as comedy.
It does work as comedy, but the reason it works is because Donna comes off as almost achingly honest and vulnerable and funny and, when she's not quite in control of herself and her material, kind of sad and even a little pathetic. Slate, a comic herself who spent one year on television's Saturday Night Live but who is sadly mostly known for dropping an F-bomb during her first show in that season-long stint, gives what should easily become a starmaking turn here as Donna. Slate draws you in and keeps you holding on even when she's aching and in pain and even when she's so bold and funny that you can't really imagine how you would feel if it were you she was joking about. It's rather amazing how well Obvious Child balances it all, at times projecting both dark and painful humor and shattered vulnerability in the same scene.
Gaby Hoffmann, a respected indie actress who has yet to really get the kudos she deserves, is warm and funny and wonderful as Donna's best friend and roommate Nellie, a woman who appears to have likely gone down these roads that Donna is experiencing now and whose presence is part best friend, part life coach, and who likely represents that grounding force with whom I'm pretty sure we can all identify.
Even when the film introduces an almost absurd piece of story, such as the fact that Donna works at a soon to be closing bookstore called "Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Books," it does so without making fun of but instead allowing the humor that is naturally present in the situation to unfold. To be sure, there will be those who won't be able to look past the film's non-politicized yet very open attitudes about abortion. While Obvious Child doesn't present it so much as a frivolous choice as it does simply the logical choice given Donna's life circumstances and the fact that she hasn't quite figured out how to even parent herself yet, the film's comfortable, funny, and touching scenes in Planned Parenthood probably mean the film won't be on Westboro Baptist Church's viewing list anytime soon.
I can always tell how much I've loved a film when I sit myself down at my computer, begin writing, and re-watch the film's trailer. When a film has truly impacted me, I will watch the trailer mesmerized and I will relive the laughs, the tears, the thoughts, the ideas, and the characters that I had enjoyed so much. This is very much what happened as I began to write this review.
As I watched the trailer, I laughed.
As I watched the trailer, I nearly began to shed a tear.
As I watched the trailer, I again found myself surrendering ever so briefly to these characters and the wonderful little world that they created over the course of the film's 84-minute running time.
Obvious Child is not an "abortion comedy," but its humor and emotional resonance wouldn't have been the same without that incredibly vital story thread. Obvious Child is much more about life, choices, little moments, deep appreciation, and the intimate ways in which our lives weave themselves together. I found myself just as captivated by Donna and Nellie as I was by Donna and Max, though certainly in different ways yet with no less emotional resonance and impact.
First-time feature filmmaker Gillian Robespierre has crafted with Obvious Child a film that is confidently vulnerable and genuinely honest while acknowledging the masks that we so easily wear in our daily lives. While there were a couple times when small little choices felt more like dramatic devices than genuine moments, these very minor moments don't distract from a film that should announce Robespierre as one of Hollywood's up-and-coming filmmakers whose gift for richly developed characters and wonderfully told and refreshingly unique stories should make her a filmmaker you'll want to watch for years to come.
Chris Teague's lensing is spot-on perfect in capturing the heart and humor that exists between these characters, while Chris Bordeaux's original music lends the film an energy that nicely companions everything that unfolds. Sara K. White's production design is so natural and honest that you can't help but feel like you've truly stumbled into the world in which these characters live.
Obvious Child is currently on a limited nationwide run with growing indie distributor A24 and just opened in my hometown of Indianapolis at the Landmark Keystone Arts Cinema. If you've grown tired of the big budget distractions that are filling the multiplexes during this Summer moviegoing season, do yourself a favor and catch Obvious Child.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic