Dir. Gillian Robespierre
True to its title, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child features the Paul Simon song in the film. It’s more than just a snappy — and for a low-budget indie, undoubtedly expensive — soundtrack choice: it underscores an early scene in the film around which the plot pivots. Aspiring comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is rudely dumped by her cheating boyfriend, and told by her boss that the bargain bookstore where she works is closing. Seeking consolation, she allows herself to be picked up by the relentlessly square Max (Jake Lacy), and their foreplay, a silly dance party in his living room, is edited to Simon’s song. Donna brushes Max off as a one-night stand — until she finds out she is pregnant a few weeks later. This complication lingers in the background as Max tries to pursue Donna, and she tries to avoid him and the truth. The film has been labeled “an abortion romantic comedy,” which tells us more about our politics than the film itself, but I can see why people have struggled to define it. I’m not quite sure how to situate Robespierre’s film, and how or to whom to recommend it. Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie / But I say why / Why deny the obvious child? / Why deny the obvious child? Is it “the obvious child” or “the obvious, child”? It’s both.
The story opens with Donna performing her standup comedy at a Brooklyn bar, and from the beginning it’s clear that in front of an audience is where she is most fully herself (or at least where she’s rewarded for most fully being herself). Her brand of comedy is confessional (and somewhat preoccupied with bodily functions), the kind of confessions that lead her boyfriend (Paul Briganti) to mercilessly dump her in the bar’s bathroom after the set. He’s tired of being publicly embarrassed by Donna onstage, and he also admits he’s been sleeping with her friend. This devastates Donna, but a few eye-rolls and an affectless breakup speech are all we really get from him. He’s less a character than a stand-in for the bad choices we can presume Donna makes. I understand the impulse to get the plot going, but the fact that we know so little about him or their relationship makes the post-breakup scenes somewhat of a slog. Donna mopes, goes home (e.g. crosses the river to Manhattan) to see her parents, and indulges in some “light stalking.” Her downward spiral takes its Jack-and-Coke-fueled detour with Max after a particularly brutal turn at the mic where Donna rambles about the breakup and her desire to “murder-suicide” her ex and his new thin, blonde girlfriend. That we have sympathy for Donna has mostly to do with Jenny Slate’s performance (and the sweet lilt to her croaky voice). Donna is childish, and all the talk of farting and peeing a little annoying, but Slate’s delivery of the material is very charming. And when Donna bothers to focus on other people, her insights can be very funny. An example: Donna’s roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) calls the new girlfriend “a bag of bones,” and Donna zings back “she’s actually my target weight.” Poor Max. He’s honest, forthright, and genuine, a milk-fed Vermont boy with a good job and matching furniture. Until circumstances bind them together, he doesn’t really stand a chance with Donna.
I guess the references to Girls or Juno, or (really stretching here) Knocked Up are logical. But if comparisons need to be made, I’d say Bridesmaids is the most apt. It sounds very Lifetime, but I don’t know how else to say it except that the humor in Obvious Child feels like women’s comedy. I’m thinking of the thundering countdown of the iPhone timer while Donna waits for the results of her over-the-counter pregnancy test, or the semantics of an appointment at Planned Parenthood (Donna settles on, “I’d like an abortion, please.”) The scenes at the clinic were for me the sharpest and most interesting: the counselor who gets Donna’s name wrong, the tears that slide out of a sedated Donna’s eyes as the procedure begins, and the woman nervously clutching her paper cup next to Donna in the recovery room. The camera has the confidence to stay wide as Donna takes a couple quick glances at the woman’s engagement ring, and I could imagine what she’s thinking: raw material.
While overall very strong, Obvious Child is inconsistent. For a film that grounds its humor in detailed observation there are elements of the story that are maddeningly vague. Place, for one. There isn’t anything particularly New Yorky about Donna’s world, and class is also extremely ambiguous. How does Donna’s bookstore job pay her Williamsburg rent? In current New York, you need a portfolio of latte art to work at a coffee shop. Even Donna’s hippie boss wouldn’t tolerate an employee who we only see asleep on the job or hiding in a cardboard box. But the real problem is really a structural issue: the film moves too fast to linger on any supporting character or moment for long, which is a shame, because the supporting cast (Gabe Liedman, David Cross, Richard Kind) is very good. Even in one of the more complete scenes, when Donna confesses her pregnancy and planned abortion to her mother (Polly Draper), the film cuts away from the conversation mid-reaction. I suppose the editing is dictated by the conventions of comedy, but as the story wavers and veers deeper I would have liked for Robespierre to take her time. Still, if I can occasionally feel the mechanics of the storytelling, the relationship between Donna and Max feels completely earned. They have a believable lack of chemistry that evolves as Donna becomes more vulnerable. Max just keeps showing up for her, and slowly her ridicule of him softens into gratitude. I respect that the subversive surprise of Obvious Child is not will she or won’t she have an abortion, but will she or won’t she fall in love.