Despite what you may have heard, OBVIOUS CHILD is not, fundamentally, an “abortion movie,” if such a genre exists. It is, however, a thoughtful and warmhearted exploration of the significance of young peoples’ choices, specifically the choice of a young woman to have an abortion.
In the film Jenny Slate plays Donna, a young standup comedian in Brooklyn, who navigates a breakup, a hookup, and a subsequent pregnancy. The film is the debut feature length film by director Gillian Robespierre, and was adapted from a 2009 short film of the same title. OBVIOUS CHILD succeeds in its transition to full length romantic comedy, undermining the genre while still providing some of its breezy charms.
Slate has been a fixture in internet/underground/alternative comedy for years—her Bestie X Bestie videos with Gabe Liedman (who has a supporting role in the film, too) are hilarious and, among many other projects, she provided the voice for beloved Internet shell, Marcell. She did a brief stint on SNL, and has had roles on PARKS AND RECREATION and BOB’S BURGERS. This film certainly has the potential to introduce Slate to a wider audience. And her comedy is very much on display here: wry, reflexive, dark without being despairing—though to be honest this movie did occasionally feel a little more compulsorily upbeat compared to Slate’s typical comedic fare.
Slate plays a version of herself in the film, which intercuts a few scenes of her character’s standup routine, playing off a recurring technique of mixing the fictional and autobiographical in contemporary, zeitgeisty comedy and television. Donna is both Jenny Slate and not Jenny Slate, and the emotional and comedic appeal of her role resides in our recognition of her in and out of the film, on and off stage. It’s an interesting gambit, and a necessary one, to depict the life of a performer, off the stage. We begin to recognize that the frustration and discontent and absurdity featured in her material comes from somewhere very real.
The love interest/one night stand, Max (played by the late-season OFFICE‘s Jake Lacey) is an earnest, MBA-type guy, whose bemused outsider quality goes well enough along with Slate’s spontaneousness and animation. It’s fun to watch Max and Donna’s courtship, even if he isn’t entirely fleshed out as a character beyond his chronic niceness. This is forgivable since the dramatic tension of the film resides in Donna’s own ambivalence about involving Max in her decision—and in her life going forward. For Donna, it’s a matter of course that she is going to have the abortion, and the film depicts her choice as an informed and important one, but one that is hers alone, and one in a series of important decisions that she must make going forward.
The best work the film does is depicting the the way choices move through a person, how a person processes and affirms their choices, and the way these decisions reverberate across the lives of the other people that surround them. For Donna, this involves her feelings for Max, but Robespierre also features Donna’s relationship to her friends and parents: her father, a soppy-nice puppeteer played by Richard Kind, and in particular her mother, a more serious-minded business school professor (who just so happens to have been Max’s professor?) played by Polly Draper. These scenes are among the film’s best, with Slate stepping out of a purely comic role, and I do wish we shared a few more moments with Donna’s family.
One rhetorical device Donna returns to in her act is her half-ironic description of herself as “an adult woman,” or her boyfriend as a “human male.” She says this in such a way that we can see her processing and confirming that description, and even her life at large, to herself, and interrogating her own place in the world through her comedy. That’s what’s brilliant about her act, it’s not simply “confident” or “confessional,” but her foregrounding of insecurity that matters, and which is different and distinct from your standard self-deprecating comic style.
Slate plays her character with that commingling of confidence and vulnerability, frustration and elation that makes for good comedy. It’s the kind that both allows the audience to, yes, “identify” with her childishness or ridiculousness, but also see a person, an adult woman, navigating herself and the world on her own. She is, as her roommate says, “completely herself” on the stage. OBVIOUS CHILD, in turn, feels honest, both a vehicle for Slate and an earnest examination of choice in its own right.
OBVIOUS CHILD (2014) DIR: GILLIAN ROBESPIERRE
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