REVIEW: Obvious Child

27 06 2014

Obvious ChildRiverRun Film Festival

If Woody Allen and Joan Rivers ever had a love child, it would probably sound a whole lot like Jenny Slate’s Donna Stern in “Obvious Child.”  This stand-up comedian proves to be a magnet for unfortunate events – losing her job and her boyfriend in rapid succession – and handles it with indefatigable humor, both macabre and self-deprecating.  Slate refashions a best friend archetype into a leading lady, and it works marvelously.

Donna might not work quite as well as a character had she not appeared in a film with the refreshing candor of writer/director Gillian Robespierre.  Pleasant interactions at a bar lead Donna into the bedroom with the charming Max (Jake Lacy, recognizable to fans of the last season of “The Office”) … but what grows inside her isn’t love or desire for a relationship.

It’s a baby, one thing Donna knows she can’t handle in her crazy life.  So she does what plenty of women across the country do: signs up to get an abortion.  In the spirit of stand-up, Donna and the film tackle the issue head-on.  She even incorporates it into her routine on stage, not to poke fun at it but to use humor as a vehicle to really explore the way we feel about abortion.  The real injustice, Robespierre seems to argue, is the way we traipse around the issue when we talk about it.

“Obvious Child” plays out like a feminist take on “Knocked Up,” another film that explores the consequences of unplanned pregnancy with poignant honesty.  All the characters speak with such refreshing candor, particularly about what it means to be a woman both physically and emotionally.  As Donna’s confidante and roommate Nellie, Gaby Hoffman brings down the house with her free spirit and untamed tongue.

Obvious Child

The fact that “Obvious Child” doesn’t play into any pre-existing cinematic moral schemata just makes it all the more effective in its storytelling.  Abortion, to the film, is an individual choice just like any other we make in life.  It carries consequences, just as every decision we make does.  But those don’t have to include cosmic punishment as so many films inflict upon “transgressive” females tend to do.  Plenty of women undergo the procedure without feel crippling guilt, and whether you agree with their choice or not, their stories are just as valid to tell on the screen.

And perhaps most “radically” of all, Donna actually gets to have the story arc of a romantic comedy.  There’s a slight detour with the pregnancy, but she isn’t deemed unworthy of love simply because she decides to terminate it.  And the guy who falls for her, Max, is actually one of the best male screen suitors in ages.  He’s not obsessed with some masculine performance to woo Donna, instead relying on kindness and thoughtfulness to win over both her and the audience.

Max and Donna feel like such aberrations in cinema these days, which shows just how far comedies can stray from representing real people.  The way “Obvious Child” treats both genders with respect and truthfulness ought to be copied by just about any filmmaker whose work can’t pass the Bechdel test.  A-3halfstars


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