Despite my hesitance when it comes to romantic comedies — all those tropes and cliches tend to send me running — I find myself more and more willing these days to dig into films of the genre, especially those of the independent persuasion. I’m not entirely sure why, but independent rom-coms tend to work for me far better than studio rom-coms. Perhaps it is because independent rom-coms tend to utilize genre tropes not as crutches but as legitimate storytelling devices. No matter the exact reason, I again express this sentiment with Obvious Child, the debut feature from writer-director Gillian Robespierre about a stand-up comedienne facing an unplanned pregnancy and, with it, a decision that forces her to confront a most unwelcome bit of adulthood.
Donna (Jenny Slate) is a twenty-something living in New York. She spends her nights at a local club ripping jokes, spewing obscenities, and dishing stories from her own life — including dirty details about her relationship with her boyfriend. Soon, though, Donna finds herself single, lonely, and vulnerable to the attention of a stranger named Max (Jake Lacy), whom she sleeps with and, as you might have guessed, gets knocked up by. For the duration of the film, Donna tries to find her way through young womanhood with the help of her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), her comedy club pals Joey (Gabe Liedman) and Sam (David Cross), her divorced parents (Richard Kind, Polly Draper), and the never-give-up affections of her baby-daddy.
As you can see, Obvious Child is a simple film, but through its simplicity it tackles a morally complex issue, one our society would much rather leave in the shadows: abortion. Slate’s Donna, almost instantly upon learning of her pregnancy, makes the decision to have her unborn child aborted. The film handles her decision and its consequences with skillful tact, remarkable grace, and utmost respect.
Obvious Child shares an odd kinship with another rock-solid indie from last year, Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton. Both feature films are based on short films from the same filmmakers, feature some of their source materials’ same cast, and were released 5 years after their short film predecessors. Also like Short Term 12, Obvious Child has little to no fat within its frames; it has been trimmed to less than 90 minutes in length, so even if you don’t like the film, at least you didn’t waste your entire day on it — though with Slate as the lead, I’m comfortable saying it is unlikely you would possibly hate this film.
Much like Brie Larson was in Short Term 12, Jenny Slate is the, ahem, obvious star of Obvious Child. It’s refreshing to see female actors given an opportunity to really shine, and Slate takes the opportunity and does something fantastic with it in a role that our society would most likely find far more fitting for a man: that of a stand-up comic in his (her) late twenties making raunchy, borderline-offensive jokes about sexual conquests, assholes — both literal and figurative — dirty underwear, farts, and more, spouting obscenities at an unbelievable clip, yet doing so in a way that ultimately endears us and connects us with the character.
I quite often found, or heard rather, the other moviegoers in the auditorium expressing disbelief and disgust toward many of the things Donna says and does, whether in her stand-up routines, while walking the streets with Nellie, or while making a fool of herself out in public with Max. There is a massive double standard, I think, with our society’s perception of what women can say, what they can do, what they can wear, and so on. Through the character of Donna, Robespierre examines that double standard and seeks to tear down the walls that often confine cinema’s female characters.
Robespierre has by no means made a perfect film here, but given its subject matter and all that the film seeks to bring to the table, she has made arguably the best film she possibly could have. Where most romantic comedies are dull and predictable, Obvious Child is bold and edgy — still a bit predictable, but it earns the ability to use the genre tropes that it does. It employs these tropes in such a manner that they aren’t crutches, but instead appropriate and supplemental story devices.
With Slate as its lead, Robespierre’s Obvious Child is yet another independent rom-com worth more than the price of admission — so grab some Red Vines, splurge on an ICEE, and enjoy.
Grade: ★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content
Runtime: 84 minutes