Donna (Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comedienne who takes her life up on stage with her, warts and all. In fact, if she had warts – and especially if they were genital warts – you’d probably hear about them. Her material is frank, funny and fresh-feeling. She is the warm centre of this appealing movie; a sort-of rom-com. About an abortion.
Oh, hushed silence in the room. That’s not a subject that usually lends itself to comedy, unless you’re looking to push boundaries and buttons. Thankfully, this is something that Obvious Child attempts, very sociably, to address. Even in this day and age there’s a certain stigmatism still attached to abortion. This film is here to encourage us, happily, to talk about it. Not that this is an ‘issues’ movie. There’s no moral soapboxing or grandstanding here. It’s far better, far wiser than that. Leave that sort of thing to the old Hallmark Movie Of The Week.
After giving us a full-throttle taster of Donna’s comic stylings, the movie lands on our heroine being dumped in a club toilet. It’s a low blow, especially as the loser-in-question can’t keep his eyes off of his phone long enough to look Donna in the eye (even here there are witty observations about modern behaviour [checking my phone as I write this]). After a bout of sorrowful, embarrassing, totally relatable wallowing for her imploded relationship status (which should’ve been listed as ‘it’s complicated’ for a while now, much to her chagrin), Donna exorcises her demons on stage. It’s awkward. She’s drunk. Later, and after more drinks, she meets Max (Jake Lacy).
Bonding over a shared appreciation for farts and, well, each other, the two spend the night together. Donna creeps out of his apartment in the sharp morning sun, with the thud of the hangover-in-waiting just around the corner. Cut to a few weeks later and, to her dismay, Donna learns she is pregnant. Now, this may seem like tried and tested territory with the next steps appearing inevitable, but Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre, takes a different, commendably pragmatic approach to the situation.
There’s no hand-wringing to Donna’s decision to have an abortion. She’s an adult. She’s not in a relationship with Max. Her economic standpoint is unstable (as her mother, played by Polly Draper, is happy to remind her… with spreadsheets). It’s her choice and it’s the most sensible path she can see. Robespierre doesn’t avoid the discussion as much as she looks the audience in the eye and says, “get over it.” There’s a lot to respect in that. The remainder of the film concerns itself with just how Donna is going to approach the subject with Max, as no matter what she seems to do, he keeps cropping up in her life.
And the movie is funny throughout. When it’s not charming you with its approach to the subject matter, it’s winning you over with its characters and wit. This comes in no short supply from Slate, who positively owns the film. In a performance slightly reminiscent of Greta Gerwig in last year’s Frances Ha, this is an all-or-nothing assimilation of comic performer and movie role. One that feels effortless, like an extension of self. As with Gerwig, a lot of the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie will come from how they take to Slate. Personally, I found her constantly appealing, imbuing Donna with the anticipated streak of standard-issue quirky-oddball-liberalism, yet softening that with very real, identifiable human traits. What could’ve been one-note and irksome has enough self-awareness to feel fuller than that.
Her effervescence keeps the movie buoyant, even when it threatens to go maudlin. As a result Obvious Child treads a happy path between the two; slightly cynical, but playful and light with it. Slate receives some solid support, be it from the likes of Richard Kind as her loving father, David Cross as a creeping admirer, or Gaby Hoffman as the stalwart best friend. There’s not really a bum note between them, and nobody upstages the leading lady.
Set during a New York winter, Obvious Child arrives at a contrasting time of year, but feels cosy and inviting. Robespierre’s direction is largely without ego, allowing the story and the characters to engage the audience. Only on two notable occasions does she push outside of this, to varying success. A nighttime taxi-ride sees the narrative pause ever so briefly for an evocative P.O.V. shot of street lights scrolling by (a small but enjoyable moment of introspection)… however an earlier scene in which Donna’s thoughts are projected as if they’re playing on a radio feels a little too conspicuous.
Nevertheless, this is a minor qualm in what is, overall, a pleasing film with an agreeable directness. Mixing the scuzzy locales of the stand-up life with the more mannered surroundings of middle class apartments and the shabby-chic aesthetic of the second-hand book store, Obvious Child is a grab-bag of New York sensibilities that breezily occupies 85 minutes. Like the best stand-ups, it makes you laugh, earns your respect, and leaves you feeling like you also got a healthy dose of truth in there also. Worth a look.