Obvious Child (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Obvious Child (2014)

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Donna is not having a good year.  She hasn't been able to get her creative mojo going after her boyfriend broke up with her after a set of standup comedy, her mother is on her case about getting her life together, and now she finds out she's pregnant after a one-night stand.  Obvious Child is written for the screen and directed by Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate.

The stage is yoursObvious Child does not have the markings of a traditionally "important" film.  Gillian Robespierre, who wrote and directed the original short film of the same name, crafted a deliberately low scale film.  The heroine, Donna (Jenny Slate), is a comedienne who has yet to find her voice but based on some early film standup is well on her way to figuring out how to make people laugh with her insecurities.  Donna performs in dingy bars and tries not to starve on the salary her bookshop job can afford.  Her life seems the kind that inspires a brief cut in a commercial for a coffee shop, not a feature-film.

But these minor elements are horribly important to Donna, mundane though they may be compared to other characters in cinema.  As Obvious Child rolls along it looks like a funny, if slight, film about a woman trying to cope with a breakup.  Then Donna gets pregnant, decides to have an abortion, and Robespierre's Obvious Child reveals itself as a film about a lot more than one comedienne and her problems.

In most literature, be it written or filmed, the decision to have an abortion comes at the end of a dramatic plot.  Think back to the slow dolly away from the pristine white of Kate Winslet's dress in Revolutionary Road to reveal the dripping mass of blood on her dress and home.  Rarely is the real decision of having the abortion the source of drama, and even then treated with a comic sense of storytelling like the farcical Ruth of Citizen Ruth.  With quiet, very funny, and painfully sweet charm, Obvious Child is as much a dialogue about the way abortion has gone from a backdoor deal for troubled women to a safer procedure without losing any of the emotional pain that comes with the decision.

Slate is a warm performer who navigates Donna's tricky emotional predicament with admirable restraint.

Slate is a warm performer who navigates Donna's tricky emotional predicament with admirable restraint.

Robespierre does this in scenes packed with enough small details and emotional shifts that each moment is like its own short story.  Look at the way Robespierre films Donna and her soon-to-be-ex Ryan (Paul Briganti) during the opening scenes of Obvious Child.  When she's onstage and he walks into the crowd he is illuminated no more or less than the others, he's just another face for her to pluck details from for her comedy.  But when he confronts her, he does so in the place where she'd feel most vulnerable in a place where she's already exposed, and in-between each stab as he breaks up with her we hear toilets flushing in the background.  The flushes never interrupt the dialogue, but always come in-between as a patron tries to avoid eye contact on the way out, punctuating the breakup with more unintended discomfort with each awkward passer-by.

This scene balances so many tones at once - heartbreak for Donna, anger at Ryan, a bit of disgust at the surrounding but ends, most importantly, on a laugh with each flush.  Obvious Child is first and foremost a comedy, and one that doesn't go for huge jokes but efficient jabs, like when Donna's best friend Joey (Gabe Liedman) tries to cheer her up by saying her drunken self-pitying set wasn't so bad because, "At least people learned a lot about the Holocaust."  Or the moment when Donna comes home frustrated because she saw her ex with his new girlfriend and she was, "Just doing some light stalking."

Slate, who I've only seen in Parks and Recreation as Jean-Ralphio's twin sister, is so damn good in those moments that her performance is borderline award-worthy.  She follows through the careful balance of the setups with some deft work of her own, preceding that stalking line with nervous body language that's equal parts nervous breakdown, cold shakes, and manic laughter at her own behavior.  There isn't a single moment of Obvious Child where Slate is asked to convey a single emotion and is always a volatile mix of three states.  If Obvious Child's subject wasn't so touchy, we'd be seeing more raves at the subtle difficulties she had to overcome with a role this tricky.

Donna's family life has just enough eccentricity and dramatic tension to see how she gravitated toward a career that involves telling total strangers intimate details about herself.

Donna's family life has just enough eccentricity and dramatic tension to see how she gravitated toward a career that involves telling total strangers intimate details about herself.

But then I also would not be discussing just why Obvious Child is so important.  That subtlety speaks volumes when we see scenes of Jenny interacting with women who have gotten an abortion or who are on the same road she is.  Donna scrutinizes every aspect of her seemingly mundane life in light of her pregnancy and coming abortion, so when Robespierre shows post-procedure Donna sitting silently with other women who have just had their abortions, the low-key presentation purposely undersells just how huge the moment is.  Everyone in that room has their story and went through so much pain and self-doubt to do what they thought was right - they don't need harassment or unnecessary laws making what is already a traumatic decision worse.  As a society, we haven't come nearly as far in terms of emotional support as we have with legislation and access to abortion - another point made quietly when Donna's mother tells her about her illegal abortion.

Audiences can learn something from Donna's grace, but also the characters on the periphery.  Each of Donna's boyfriends, be it the jerk Ryan, wannabe beau Sam (David Cross), or one-night stand turned complicated love interest Max (Jake Lacey), has subtle lessons engrained in their behavior.  Ryan is a reflection of society's more obvious pressures on women while Sam is just the sort of passive-aggressive "nice guy" that we could stand to have less of.  But Max, and Jake Lacey's performance, is another balancing act of awkwardness, attraction, and just enough confidence and self-awareness to avoid pitfalls.  In the rare moments emotions get hot, like Nellie's (Gaby Hoffman) rant about old men in robes legislating vaginas, there's enough truth to reflect on Donna's cadre of men wanting her to be something else that it's funny and devastatingly accurate all at once.

Obvious Child, through no fault of its own, will likely be ignored by the award circuit as time goes on because we still don't seem ready to deal with abortion in ways that aren't dramatically intense.  But Obvious Child has already found a supportive audience for good reason.  Robespierre's film is the sort we can all learn from, a feat made more impressive by how she refuses to preach to the audience.  She teaches from example and we laugh, cry, and sometimes hide in giant boxes, right along with Donna.

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Tail - Obvious ChildObvious Child (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Gillian Robespierre.
Starring Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Good review Andrew. It’s one of my favorites of the year because it’s basically the little movie that could. May be small in size and scope, but has huge emotions that make it just about perfect-viewing for anybody.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. I kept having that thought throughout Obvious Child because so many little things are just perfect. That scene of Slate watching her ex’s door in the cold is as good as films get this year.

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