Starring Jenny Slate, Max Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, David Cross and Richard Kind
Directed by Gillian Rebespierre
Jenny Slate laughs, cries her way through Obvious Child
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Obvious Child will forever be known as the “abortion rom-com,” which is a shame because it aspires to be so much more than the one unremarkable scene that everyone is talking about.
First and foremost, it’s a character study about a hopelessly endearing hipster — or millennial, pick your poison — flailing through life on a whim. It’s also a frank and honest romance that reveals the pitfalls of dating in a major city. The movie stars Jenny Slate as Donna, a stand-up comic whose routine is far better than the club she performs it in. Her opening routine had some roaring lines, including one about “commando crawling through cream cheese” that had everyone retching. After one of her sets, Donna’s boyfriend breaks up with her. More humiliating is the location the dumping occurs: the co-ed graffiti-covered bathroom where, presumably, someone was eavesdropping on the public breakup while they were pooping.
Donna, heartbroken and self-destructive, lets herself go in her next performance as she drunkenly staggers around the stage in self-pity. It’s not a good look on her, which doesn’t seem to faze Max (Jake Lacy), the software developer who is schmoozing clients in the Brooklyn comedy club. They buy each other drinks and before long they’re arm and arm, peeing in the alley. He accidentally farts on her head mid-pee, and she’s not grossed out all — really, she’s honored that he would embarrass himself so early in front of him. The scene culminates into a sexual encounter, but not before a lovely bedroom montage set to the Paul Simon song that the film has named itself after.
You’ve probably guessed that Donna gets pregnant. She decides to get an abortion in a scene that can be summed up like this: Donna decides to get an abortion. There is little debate, or arguing, or soul searching. She just makes a choice. Obvious Child doesn’t debunk abortion myths so much as it demystifies the controversial act by presenting us a pregnant woman and then letting us watch as she goes in for a procedure that, in her mind, might as well be a teeth cleaning. It doesn’t provoke controversy, preach, or belittle the opponents. It just exists as a testament to one woman’s right to control her body. When the film finally gets to the procedure, Donna cries a little, but the movie suggests her decision was a simple one, and that might be it’s strongest argument: the debate rattles on in Washington, D.C., but in the minds of women, their minds have already been made up.
Slate is the right performer for this material. She’s intelligent, fiercely witty and her nasally voice gives Donna a whiny presence within the film’s Brooklyn setting, where everyone has money for $20 drinks but seemingly no jobs to earn that money. She has a funny way of delivering the most devilish of lines with a brand of innocence that comes with a halo and glowing aura. She’s so sweet, and petite, and childlike. But then she drops her bombs: calling something “softer than angels’ titty skins,” or telling her friend that she was playing “Russian roulette with her vagina.” She has one abortion gag that’s so self-aware and prescient that it explodes in your face. Slate, a bratty cross of Bridesmaids and Bikini Kill, comes from the Lena Dunham school of acting: just throw it all out there and let the audience sort it out.
As the film strives for realism, though, I found it unfulfilling. The relationships, pregnancy and abortion are handled in honest ways, but almost nothing else is. When the woman at the abortion clinic tells her the procedure is going to cost $500, Donna hardly blinks and plops down the money. How? She works part-time at a failing bookstore, and she lives in a notoriously expensive city, one she seems to enjoy without limits. A pregnant woman’s financial stability might be a factor in any decision she makes, so it’s curious that this film would gloss over that issue.
That aside, though, Obvious Child is an important comedy, if only because it is by women, starring women and aimed at women. The abortion might be its foundation, but there is so much more to see, namely Jenny Slate in her first starring role.