“Obvious Child,” a romantic comedy centering on a young woman’s decision to have an abortion, is a daring, down-to-earth and funny indie about female realities and contemporary love.
Credit writer-director Gillian Robespierre and her star, Jenny Slate, for doing something fresh and witty within the problematic romcom formula.
The film is an old-fashioned love story with a female pulse and a contemporary protagonist in the familiar form of a directionless young woman stumbling her way toward fulfillment. The setting is Brooklyn. The tone is low-budget and raw. The humor is a shaky but spirited mix of sophisticated and scatological.
Slate plays Donna Stern, a 28-year-old aspiring comedian who shares the details of her personal life in profane, barely filtered standup acts. Her openness doesn’t amuse her boyfriend (Paul Briganti), who dumps her, and admits he’s been cheating, in an early scene. A supportive best friend (Gaby Hoffman), a gay pal (Gabe Liedman), a high-achieving professor mother (Polly Draper), and a goofy puppeteer dad (Richard Kind) also figure in.
The breakup, compounded with the loss of her bookstore day job, sends Donna into a self-indulgent funk. A drunken one-night stand with a business-school grad named Max (Jake Lacy) results.
Soon, Donna discovers she’s pregnant. No “Juno”-style second thoughts – Donna, broke and clearly unready to be a parent, promptly schedules an abortion. Her dilemma involves whether to tell Max. A nice sort, he hopes to begin a relationship with Donna, who, scared of her own feelings, has pushed him away.
The overall experience, which includes a clinic appointment on, yes, Valentine’s Day, prompts Donna to take charge of her life. From its meet-cute sequence to its sunny closure to some unlikely coincidences in between, the film exemplifies the romantic-comedy format, and, consequently, sometimes feels false.
Additionally, Robespierre, making her feature debut and expanding on a shorter film, presents potentially interesting relationships sketchily, and the tone of her more earnest material can clash with the gross-out humor that frequently characterizes Donna’s interactions.
Yet despite the recipe, the film contains people and scenarios that are distinctive and real. A common experience among women but virtually taboo in movies, abortion receives smart, serious, humorous and welcome matter-of-fact treatment.
Slate, a “Saturday Night Live” alum, helps it shine. As with Greta Gerwig’s differently styled but similarly challenging heroine in “Frances Ha,” Slate’s Donna helps a potentially disastrous movie triumph by convincing viewersthat her self-absorbed, immature character deserves emotional investment.
When Donna is connecting with her standup audiences, or sharing a simpatico smile with another clinic patient, or dancing like an idiot in her underwear, or stating, “I would like an abortion, please,” the movie sparkles.
Donna’s scenes with Lacy’s Max, meanwhile, who comes across as Donna’s knight in shining boat shoes, are sufficiently engaging to inspire moviegoers to root for a pair who, in real life, probably wouldn’t hook up.
A Paul Simon track provides the film’s title.
Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman
Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre
Running time 1 hour, 23 minutes