Obvious Child (2014)
84 min., rated R.
The Pregnancy Comedy is very much a "thing"—2007's "Juno," "Knocked Up" and "The Brothers Soloman," 2008's "Baby Mama," 2010's "The Back-up Plan" and "The Switch," and 2012's "What to Expect When You're Expecting," just to name a few—and it doesn't seem to be going out of style anytime soon. Being unfairly referred to as an "abortion comedy," writer-director Gillian Robespierre's feature debut "Obvious Child" dares to frankly broach such a difficult social issue or at least treat it as an option when most films just dance around and stigmatize it. Sure, there is nothing remotely amusing about an abortion, but the film isn't exclusively about that, nor does it make light of abortion or have an agenda to proselytize; it's about a young woman in flux even before she gets pregnant. In contemporary, liberal Hollywood, such a film shouldn't feel this subversive, but it actually does in a small, modest and pretty sophisticated way.
Almost thirty years old and uninsured, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a struggling Brooklyn stand-up comic who relies on her income from working a day job at an old store for "unoppressive anti-imperialist bargain books" and acing the occasional organic douche commercial. Shortly after her boyfriend dumps her for a mutual friend, the book store is about to close and the draining feeling of her creativity energy, Donna gets sloshed the same night right before her set on stage and ends up having a rebound one-night stand with a dorky, aw-shucks stranger named Max (Jake Lacy). Within weeks, she realizes she's late with boob soreness, and a plus sign on a pregnancy test does not put Donna in positive spirits. Even if she fails to tell Max right away, Donna has a great support system in her divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), and her comedian pal, Joey (Gabe Liedman), when she has already made up her mind about what to do about the pregnancy.
Adapted from a 2009 short film by writer-director Robespierre (which also starred Slate in the lead role) with lovely use of Paul Simon's song of the same name, "Obvious Child" is a slice of life that prefers to be more conversational than plotty and delicately low-key but boldly edgy and free-thinking. Natural, honest and funny with wittily coarse, laugh-out-loud dialogue and bittersweet pangs of reality, the film follows through on its own premise, without going too far to be heavy or offensive, and never reduces the pro-choice topic to sitcom wackiness. Robespierre might have too much of a fondness for bodily functions at times, but bowel movements and flatulence are never the focal points of a scene nor do they soften the sharpness and generosity of the film's tone. In the vein of Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath character on HBO's "Girls," Donna is self-involved, but she is trying to get her life in order and the viewer feels like just giving her free advice and a hug. Donna doesn't have much income and child-rearing isn't high on her list of priorities, so she's not exactly in the position to be a mother. If Donna actually were to keep the baby, the film would probably feel morally irresponsible and emotionally dishonest.
Stretching beyond sketches, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Jenny Slate shows major promise in carrying her first lead feature film, which could be viewed as a female rejoinder to Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk with Me." Whether making jokes about stained underwear and expelled gas, drunk dialing her ex-beau and leaving long, wine-induced voicemails, or choosing to have an abortion, she is adorably funny, touchingly vulnerable and identifiable as Donna. As Donna's very different and, thus, divorced parents, Richard Kind shares some nice moments with Slate, as does Polly Draper, who has a tender and true scene in which she confides a secret to Donna. Jake Lacy (TV's "The Office") lends a sweet, unassuming charm to the part of Max with whom Donna failed to use a condom ("I remember seeing a condom, I just don't know, like, what it did"). Finally, on her streak of comeback roles in TV and independent films, Gaby Hoffmann is wonderfully warm and acerbic as Donna's supportive, good-egg roommate and best friend Nellie.
When Max asks Donna if she wants to watch a romantic comedy, she says she can't connect with them. The film isn't so much an anti-romantic comedy as it is a smarter and more relatable example of one. The scene in which Donna finds the courage to actually tell Max about her pregnancy and her decision kills two birds with one stone: it captures the unembarrassed, unapologetic prickliness of the character's earlier improv set ("I was recently dumped up with . . . I would love to just murder suicide them"), while checking off the conventional public-declaration scene with humorous discomfort. Free of judgment and preachiness, "Obvious Child" is a breath of fresh air. Don't let the subject matter or Slate's opening comic act about vaginas reduce this small indie miracle or make it seem like a tough sell. It's like something Woody Allen might have made had he been born with lady parts.
Grade: A -