Editor’s note: Our review of Obvious Child originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) has a problem with sharing – specifically, she shares too much when she’s on stage doing stand-up comedy; her act is peppered with scatological humor, jokes about other bodily fluids, and personal information about her romantic life. It’s not something her boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti) likes so much, which is probably why he thinks it’s appropriate to break up with her after one of her sets, at the bar where does her comedy, in the joint’s grubby communal bathroom. While staring at his phone. And confessing that he’s been banging her friend Kate. Perhaps Donna’s actual problem is that she’s been saddled with a heartless douchebag boyfriend for quite some time, but all that sharing can’t be helping so much (or can it?).
Slate shines as Donna in Gillian Robespierre’s feature debut (Robespierre is also responsible for the film’s screenplay, which she penned with input from Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm, and Anna Bean), taking what could be a very expected character (a shiftless Brooklyn hipster) and a very standard plotline (after losing her boyfriend, she also loses her job, has a one night stand with a stranger and gets knocked up) into something witty, funny and real. Robespierre’s Obvious Child smacks with relatability, believability and an honesty that’s rare these days, while also tackling a big social issue (that would be abortion) with a grown-up grace and good humor.
While Donna finds the proverbial (thrifted, mismatching) rug pulled out from under her, thanks to the smarmy Ryan, she throws herself into both some full-scale mourning and some “light stalking,” vacillating between drunkenly calling Ryan from her messy bed and straight up waiting for him outside his apartment. It’s all very funny and very true, and Slate utterly charms throughout (even when Donna is making some gobsmacking mistakes). The additional blow of losing her job doesn’t help matters, and when a straight-laced and sweet dude starts hitting on her after a particularly terrible, booze-fueled set, she goes for it. Max (Jake Lacy) is not her kind of guy, and when Donna sneaks out of his apartment the next morning, she doesn’t think much of the experience.
Well, until she’s late and starts to feel iffy and her boobs swell, and her straight talking best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, continuing her Brooklyn-set resurgence outside the confines of Girls) jokes that she’s pregnant – and she is.
Obvious Child is about a lot of the things that films about twentysomething Brooklynites are about – transition, confusion, heartbreak, bad sweaters – but Robespierre and Slate also use zippy humor and crackling one-liners to talk about something serious in a clever and satisfying way. To put it bluntly, Obvious Child is a film (a kind-of romantic comedy that’s also way more fulfilling and spritely than that genre distinction usually allows) that’s about abortion. So much for your genre conventions now!
Donna has no qualms about terminating her pregnancy once it’s been confirmed, and while she is emotional about it and transfers some of her concerns to Nellie via a tipsy question and answer period (Nellie had an abortion in high school), Obvious Child is matter-of-fact and unapologetic about its subject matter. Abortion, for all the ire it stirs amongst various political factions, is a viable option for plenty of unprepared maybe-mothers and the film doesn’t shy away from that. It’s bold, but it’s not a film that’s just trying to be bold; it’s just trying to be real – and it is.
The Upside: Jenny Slate’s performance is consistently funny and charming, Slate exhibits a wonderful chemistry with both Hoffmann and Lacy, the film challenges a difficult topic with realism and humor.
The Downside: While the film mostly subverts romantic comedy tropes, there are a few expected movements in the film’s third act.
On the Side: The film is based on a twenty-three minute short that Robespierre and Slate made way back in 2009.