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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: Obvious Child (2014)

* * *

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate

If nothing else, Obvious Child is probably the most subversive romantic comedy of the year, a film which takes one of the least respected and most formulaic of cinematic genres and uses it as a Trojan Horse for a frank discussion about abortion and its surrounding issues. During a summer when discussion of women's issues seem particularly heated thanks, in part, to the US Supreme Court's decision that a corporate entity's "feelings" matter more than a woman's health, the honest and straight forward way that Obvious Child approaches and explores its subject feels particularly vital. This isn't to say that the film is perfect - for a comedy with a protagonist who is literally a comedian, the film isn't nearly as funny as you might expect - but when it hits, it hits, and it contains an exchange which I think perfectly sums up the problem with respect to public discourse of women's issues when one of the female characters angrily laments the fact that panels of old men are legislating women's bodies and her male friend responds, "Everything you're saying is valid, but you are scaring my dick off."

Obvious Child opens with its protagonist, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), on stage telling a series of jokes about her current relationship while her boyfriend watches uncomfortably from the audience. When she's finished he informs her that not only is he breaking up with her, but that's he's already firmly entrenched in a new relationship with one of her friends. She's devastated and begins dividing her time between drunk dialing him and lightly stalking him, her depression worsening when she learns that the bookstore she works for is going to go out of business in six weeks, making her already precarious financial situation seem even more dire than ever. After getting drunk, taking the stage and bombing hard by delivering a performance that isn't so much "stand up" as it is the sad, bitter, inarticulate confessional of the recently dumped, Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy), hitting it off with him and ultimately having a one night stand with him. She flees in the morning but a few weeks later discovers that she has a potentially permanent memento from their night together when she realizes that she's pregnant.

Having decided to have an abortion - and being confronted with the reality that she can't even really afford that, let alone a baby - and supported in that decision almost exclusively by her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), because she's too scared to tell her family, Donna begins to find herself thrust towards Max as if by fate. First, having been told where she worked during the long night they spent together, he shows up at her bookstore to ask her out on a "proper date," and then later he shows up at her mother's house, where they're both shocked to discover that her mother is his professor. Donna and Max begin taking tentative steps towards... something, and though she decides that she ought to tell him about the pregnancy, she keeps backing away whenever the moment seems to come. When she finally does tell him (in what is, arguably, the least sensitive way possible and one which echoes the opening scene), and others, the reactions surprise her and help her to sort out her complicated feelings about both this particular situation and the other issues she's facing down as she tries to pull her life together.

Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre (and based on her 2009 short film), Obvious Child is refreshing for how directly it deals with its controversial subject matter. Although Donna toys with the notion that perhaps the "universe" is trying to tell her something by continuously putting Max in her path (and really the question has more to do with whether or not she should tell him than whether she should terminate the pregnancy), it doesn't play around in terms of whether or not Donna will actually go through with having an abortion. She's confident in her decision and doesn't second guess it, and the film offers a quiet but nuanced counterpoint to the notion so often expressed by anti-choisers that abortion is an option decided lightly, almost as a whim, and as an alternative form of contraception. Donna doesn't second guess her choice, but that doesn't mean that she came to it easily or without forethought, and the film's unfussy and thoughtful treatment of its subject matter is far and away its greatest asset.

The film has other strengths as well, including a winning performance from Slate, a Saturday Night Live alum who is unsurprisingly strong in the film's comedic scenes and surprisingly even stronger in the film's more dramatic moments, the easy chemistry between Slate and Lacy, and a scene stealing turn from David Cross as one of Donna's friends. All that said, there's an undeniable shagginess to the film as a whole that matches the somewhat formless state of Donna's comedy routines. The film has a purpose, a narrative point that it's driving towards, but it occasionally feels like a piece that's still being workshopped to get out all the kinks. Still, even when it starts to drift a bit Obvious Child remains entertaining and engaged with its characters and story, and whatever it may lack in finesse, it makes up for in fearlessness.

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