Spawning from somewhere within the almost Mumblecore come alternative romantic comedy genres Obvious Child is never quite as ‘obvious’ as the title implies, at least not from a cinematic point of view. Dealing with that awkward point in a young woman’s late twenties it tackles small and big issues with a grace and charm most films conveniently avoid.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comic who uses her relationship to source much of her material. But when her boyfriend unexpectedly dumps her she rapidly loses her funny bone. Hooking up one night with timid, but loveable, Max (Jake Lacy) Donna soon begins to realise that the condom she thought she used probably hasn’t done the trick and she is, in fact, pregnant. Without telling Max, and indeed avoiding him for the most part, Donna decides to get an abortion whilst also having a pseudo mid-life crisis.
Like Donna’s comedy routine Obvious Child works best when it’s being powerfully yet quietly observant. For many the concept of a film about abortion should not be funny and yet, again in one of her stand-ups, Donna is able to find a sense of bizarre clarity in such an act.
Adapting her own short film, writer-director Gillian Robespierre relies little on plot to guide us but rather a series of interactions that act as a form of cathartic realisation for Donna. The comedy ebbs and flows between warm, gentle fun and occasional withdrawn awkwardness. It doesn’t always work in creating a laugh but its often brutal honesty is infectious.
It’s the sort of film that will divide; either making you fall for its charm or leave you, like the weather in the film, feeling a little cold and detached. It’s very indie spirited, a sort of cross between Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, but without the latter’s nauseating sense of self-indulgence. What Obvious Child does so well is to never ask you to take a side or form an opinion but rather sympathise with a girl who, for all intents and purposes, is a little lost in the world and isn’t afraid to admit it. Of course it helps that the film is littered with endlessly quotable lines like “You’re dizzy because you played Russian Roulette with your vagina”.
What makes Obvious Child stick long in the memory though is Jenny Slate. Best known for her stint on Saturday Night Live and, for YouTube fans, the creator of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, she is a hugely warm and inviting screen presence. Behind the comedy, which she often deploys as a deflection mechanism, she offers an honest and warm vulnerability to a character who projects an ‘outsiders’ view on the world but is in fact expressing how many people feel in their late twenties. She’s well supported by Lacy and best friend Gaby Hoffmann who both bring a sense of dry delivery that masks an emotional investment.
Dragging a bit in the middle Obvious Child is nonetheless lifted by a huge heart and a deeply affecting central performance.