Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child opens with a rare convincing depiction of stand-up on a small scale: Donna Stern (SNL alumnus Jenny Slate) is on a tiny stage in a Williamsburg club talking about the everyday affliction of cream-cheesy panty syndrome. And farts. She’s hilarious, endearing, somehow exuding a current of neurosis while seeming perfectly relaxed, even off-the-cuff. She’s actually sexy while riffing on subjects that are sort of the antithesis of sexy. In short, she—she being Donna, Jenny, and Jenny-as-Donna—is a gifted, charismatic performer, and easily the best thing in this sassy, perfectly enjoyable, but kind of no-big-deal movie.
Except, wait a minute, it’s a super-big deal movie! Obvious Child was obviously going to ruffle feathers, at least within certain camps on the far reaches of the religious Right. The story is simple enough: girl gets dumped; girl meets new boy; girl and new boy get wasted, get busy, get pregnant; girl opts for abortion, boy is supportive; the end. And that simple story, told without endless hand wringing about its heroine’s choice, is, to be sure, a giant step for a mainstream American comedy. Robespierre’s willingness to accept that stories like Donna’s are common and that the film needn’t bend over backward to explain or contextualize it makes Obvious Child an important event, without a doubt, and I tip my hat accordingly … now that we’ve got that covered, let’s return to the more prosaic matter of whether or not Obvious Child is good.
It is good. But “good” is about as far as I’m willing to go. Slate is a wonderfully talented actress and surely on the cusp of a major breakthrough, and Donna is a fun character to spend 80 minutes with. Her emotions are all over the place. She’s sympathetic and notably imperfect; smart, but a total fuck-up too. She’s also the only developed character in the movie. Her loyal roommate (Gaby Hoffmann), for one, is a very weirdly conceived character; she exists only as a helper for Donna and seems to have no life of her own. Max (Jake Lacy), the somewhat stiff, preppy Vermont business student Donna drunkenly hooks up with certainly has his tics and traits, but he also largely behaves in a way that merely helps to frame Donna’s trajectory—which isn’t actually much of a trajectory. The way that Donna decides to finally let Max know he got her pregnant is wildly inappropriate, and on its own a pretty sharp little scene, but Max’s response, or lack there of, is pretty hard to buy.
All of which is to say that Obvious Child—an odd choice of title, taken from a Paul Simon tune that becomes the soundtrack Donna’s fateful night of sex—is a modest movie. It’s laudable for what it doesn’t do: it doesn’t turn one woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy into a pandering melodrama. If, say, another movie beat it to the punch on that particular tack, I don’t think anyone would get that excited about the films as a whole. But let’s get excited about Jenny Slate. We need comic actresses with her chops and her boldness.
Directed by Gillian Robespierre