D: Gillian Robespierre / 84m
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, David Cross, Paul Briganti
Donna (Slate) is an aspiring comedienne who uses her own life as the basis for her stand up routines. On stage she’s fearless and bold, inviting audiences to share in her bewilderment at the stains she finds in her underwear, and the equally bewildering state of her sex life with boyfriend Ryan (Briganti). When he splits up with her after a gig, Donna doesn’t know what to do. Matters don’t improve when her boss at the bookstore where she works – the wonderfully named Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books – tells her it’s going to be closing down. She looks to her parents (Kind, Draper) for advice but they both say the same thing: treat the current changes in her life as a challenge.
Donna uses the break up with Ryan as part of a routine but it goes badly. Afterwards she meets Max (Lacy) and they hit it off and end up having a one-night stand. Weeks later, while out on a shopping trip with best friend Nellie (Hoffmann), Donna realises she’s pregnant. Not ready to have a child yet, she decides to have an abortion. It’s at this point that Max reappears in her life, but while they begin to build a relationship together, Donna doesn’t tell him about the pregnancy. It becomes even more difficult to tell him when he reveals he can’t wait to be a grandfather after they see an elderly couple in a restaurant.
When Donna arranges with Max for him to come to her next show, she leaves with old friend Sam (Cross) before he can get there. They have an awkward moment at the kerbside that derails their relationship, leaving Donna feeling guilty and Max feeling confused. She tells her mother who confides that she was in the same position when she was young. From this, Donna decides to tell Max but he doesn’t find out until he goes to another of her shows and hears her discussing the pregnancy (and her plans to abort it) as part of the routine. The next day, and just as she’s leaving for the clinic, Max turns up with flowers…
Expanded from a short made in 2009, Obvious Child is an indie movie that mixes traditional romantic comedy fare with more considered dramatic elements and fuses them together to make a curious mix that is both beguiling and intriguing to watch. It all hinges on whether or not you buy into the character of Donna as a confident artist on stage, but an insecure, diffident person off stage. Thanks to Slate and writer/director Robespierre, Donna is someone we can all relate to, her lack of self-confidence away from the mic no different from the way in which any project or hobby or interest can elevate our faith in ourselves, if only for a short while, and allow us to put aside the more humdrum or mundane aspects of our daily lives. Donna’s also in her early twenties, still unsure about a lot of things, and like most of us at that age, still trying to find a place in the world around us. Her stand up routines are the way in which she works things out and puts some perspective on her life.
With Donna so cleverly and concisely drawn as a character, it leaves plenty of room for Slate to develop the role into something with a much greater depth than you’d normally expect from a comedy with such dramatic overtones. Donna is a mass of insecurities, flaws, uncertainties and self-doubts, but once she becomes pregnant she undergoes a sea change. It’s gradual but it’s there, a growing capacity for clear decision making, as the demands of Donna’s life become easier to deal with and her perception of herself becomes less debilitating. In short, deciding to have an abortion proves the making of her.
Abortion as a means to self-empowerment may not be the angle the filmmakers were aiming for, but it’s there nevertheless, and whether by design or not, it makes Donna all the more credible as a character. Cliché or not, adversity often brings out the best in people, and here, despite a couple of wobbles early on, Donna’s decision is one that proves to be a turning point, allowing her to grow and improve as a person. Slate is flawless in the role; she’s funny, poignant, touching, and she doesn’t strike a false note in the entire movie (and it’s helpful that’s she’s reprising her role from the short). It’s a star turn, able and arresting.
The rest of the cast provide more than capable support, with Lacy making Max the kind of amiable, dependable boyfriend material that all mothers would like to see their daughters hook up with, and Hoffmann providing an often acerbic turn as Donna’s best friend. Robespierre provides everyone with great dialogue – the exchange between Donna and her father at the dining table; Nellie’s admonishment, “You’re dizzy because you played Russian roulette with your vagina” – and directs loosely but with a judicious use of close ups. Donna’s stand up routines are darkly hilarious, and it’s great to see a female comic speaking as candidly as she does about such otherwise “hush hush” topics.
The subject of abortion may not be to everyone’s taste, and pro-Lifers may feel angered by the approach the movie takes, but this is one woman’s considered, positive reaction to an event she’s unprepared for, and on that level it works tremendously well. Robespierre and Slate et al should be congratulated for making a movie that doesn’t shy away from its contentious topic and doesn’t seek to complicate matters by referring to all the other agendas out there that relate to the issue.
Rating: 8/10 – an indie movie that is honest, emotive and rewarding, Obvious Child crams a lot into its short running time, and has much to recommend it; a breath of fresh air and seriously funny.