Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross, Paul Briganti
MPAA Rating: (for language and sexual content)
Running Time: 1:23
Release Date: 6/6/14 (limited); 6/13/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 12, 2014
We talk a lot about abortion in this country, or at least it seems like we do every two years during a period that happens to coincide with elections for public officials who will serve in the federal government. The politicians, the talking heads, and the political commentators come out of their holes to get in front of a camera for this or that news channel or put their fingers to the keyboard for this or that publication.
Our movies, however, don't really talk about abortion, and when they do, it's in code words or as something that exists but isn't something that a character is going to take more than a few minutes to consider as an option. Perhaps that's a remnant of the rules of conversation in polite society. We're not supposed to talk about such matters, so we leave it to the politicians, the talking heads, and the political commentators, who are suffering from serious self-awareness problems if they believe they are part of polite society. The movies, of course, don't have to be part of that mindset, either, but here we are, having to take notice that Obvious Child is something of a rarity, simply for the fact that it looks at abortion—not as a talking point but as a reality.
It's that sense of normalcy that makes the film such a subversive success in terms of addressing a political debate that, within the confines of the film itself, it otherwise goes out of its way to avoid having. Anyone looking for a balanced approach to the issue will not find it in writer/director Gillian Robespierre's film (adapted from her earlier short), but let's consider the overall discussion in American movies getting slightly closer to balance because of it.
The film is simultaneously less and more than its approach to the subject at hand—less in that it follows the conventions of romantic comedy to a degree that becomes a bit frustrating but more in how Robespierre and star Jenny Slate create a central character who is pathetic but unafraid to shout that fact from the rooftops. Well, it's a microphone, actually. It's her brutal honesty about herself and her life that endears Slate's Donna Stern to us, even as we start to squirm a bit in discomfort from the extent of her candor.
We're not alone in the latter, either. The film opens with Donna in the middle of her stand-up comedy routine, which shifts from bodily functions to sex with her boyfriend without missing a beat or dropping the tone self-deprecation. The audience loves her act, although there's one major exception: her boyfriend (Paul Briganti), who dumps her in the unisex bathroom of the comedy club after her performance and while sending text messages to the woman with whom he's been cheating on Donna.
What follows will be painfully familiar to anyone who has experienced a particularly rough break-up. It's a great moment in Slate's performance, as a montage follows her taking to the privacy of her apartment, uncorking a bottle of wine, and finding herself alternating between righteous anger and uncontrollable wretchedness as the level of alcohol in the bottle drops.
Making matters worse, the bookstore where she earns the minimal money she has to support herself is about to close, meaning she'll be out of job in a matter of months. Her comedy has become depressing, with her first foray on the stage after this gathering of bad news turning into a drunken pity party. Fortunately for her, Max (Jake Lacy), who is at the bar when she's finished with act, wasn't in the back of the club where she was performing. The two—after bonding while urinating in an alley—wind up having sex (A hilarious sequence after the act shows her thought process of determining whether or not there was a condom involved). About a month later, she discovers she's pregnant and schedules an appointment to terminate the pregnancy on—of all days—Valentine's Day.
The film doesn't make a big deal of her decision. There's a scene where she asks her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) about it, and Nellie says she once had an abortion and doesn't regret it. A later scene has another woman in Donna's life telling a story of when she terminated a pregnancy back in the day when such a procedure was illegal. These two scenes are closest Robespierre's screenplay comes to taking a soapbox, but they aren't about forcing a viewpoint. They're about Donna dealing with the reality that her life has fallen apart and reaching out for any sympathy she can find.
Max inevitably returns, and we're confronted with that nagging genre rule that states that any potential romance must be kept at a reasonable distance, lest the tension abate too early. In this case, the secret of her pregnancy and her plan for it comes between Donna and Max. It's a testament to Slate's performance that the distance here never feels forced. It's clear Donna is terrified of how Max—a man she barely knows—will react to the one-two punch of the news, and Lacy plays Max as a man so straight-laced that we suspect there might be some pushback to the revelation but so disarmingly charming that we understand Donna's hope that there won't be.
If anything, the conflict of the film is perhaps too cleanly resolved, especially considering the very public way in which she decides to spill the beans. Everything leading up to it, though, is somehow undeniably sweet in spite of the subject matter at its core and a main character who seems intent on denying herself anything approaching sweetness. Considering how well Obvious Child handles the more difficult task involved in both of those elements, it's not too surprising that Robespierre can control something as relatively straightforward as the film's tone.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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