Film Review : Obvious Child (2014)
Three years ago, Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids finally proved to mainstream Hollywood what we’ve all known for years (and what it used to know, but forgot): Funny women exist, and they can lead films.
Lately, there’s been an uprising of films made by women, telling women’s stories, and being funny enough to escape the dreaded “Girls’ Movie” label and just be known as “Comedies”. Last year brought us Maggie Carey’s The To-Do List and Lake Bell’s look at women in the entertainment industry, In A World. Now, first-time director Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child has stepped in to raise the bar and ask if you can tell jokes and handle serious subject matter. The result is a surprisingly warm and human approach to a subject which is rarely touched in films, let alone handled with respect.
Obvious Child tells the story of Brooklynite comedienne Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), who loses her boyfriend and her job in the same week. In the desperate spiral that follows, she has a drunken one-night stand with business student Max (Jake Lacy), the end result of which is a “+” sign on an EPT test. Donna makes the decision to abort the pregnancy, but circumstances keep shoving the easily-likeable Max into her life, and the other important choice she must make is what to tell him, if anything.
Abortion isn’t a topic which gets mentioned in mainstream films, especially not in the past ten years. Remember that Ellen Page’s Juno was talked out of her abortion by a protester, and in the pregnancy comedy Knocked Up, they refused to even mention the word. (“Rhymes with ‘schmabortion’” was what they went with.) This is why it’s so nice to see Robespierre’s film treat the subject with a great deal of warmth and humor. Most of what makes Donna a great character is Jenny Slate’s resolution to portray her as someone who is a little lost, but never as someone weak. She refers to herself in her stand-up act as a “human female”, and from the opening monologue we are made perfectly aware that this film unashamedly revolves around the “human female” state of being, as frustrating as it may be. Similar to the Coen Brothers’ Llewyn Davis, Donna’s on-stage monologues are revelations of bitter honesty which bounce between “funny ha-ha” and “funny awkward”, sometimes within the same line. It’s an extremely complex character development device, and to the credit of Slate and Robespierre, it works 99% of the time.
Obvious Child does go out of its way to highlight Donna’s support system and its own supporting cast, headed by her parents, Jacob and Nancy (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), and best friends Nellie and Joey (Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman). In fact, almost everyone who learns of Donna’s decision is helpful and supportive. I spent most of the film waiting for some conflict to arise, but it never does. One could accuse the film of taking a rose-colored glasses approach to this aspect of the story, but I don’t think the film would be better served by showing someone getting angry or being disappointed in Donna. In this particular case, it shows a woman who is confiding in people she trusts not to judge her, which is the most realistic portrayal possible.
Unfortunately, many of the side characters aren’t as well-developed as Donna. She and Max are interesting people surrounded by a sea of one-notes. This is most obvious whenever we are introduced to a stand-up comedian who is not Donna. They fall into the trappings of “Gay Comic” “Black Comic” and “Douchey Guy,” becoming plot points that occasionally break the films pacing, and very little more. This is a minor complaint, however, as the majority of Obvious Child revolves around two lives, the rest is extra trimming.
Obvious Child is more than a good film, it is an important one. In a male-dominated film industry, it is a film which presents a topic which makes most people feel uncomfortable in the most natural and relatable way it possibly can. More than that, it features multiple women sharing their stories on-screen, with a primary theme of “it’s more common than you think.” As what Donna would describe as a “human male”, most of the bodily humor fell flat for me, but I can respect that female comedians should get just as much right to their gross-out jokes as men do. I can also appreciate how it revels in its romantic-comedy status while simultaneously mocking all the essential rom-com tropes. Obvious Child is a funny, smart film deserving of success, and also represents the kind of voice that we need more of in the movies. Hell, it’s just the kind of movie we need more of.
Martin Schneider is a film critic for the Current Releases section of SomethingAwful.com, his other works can be read here. Follow him on Twitter @SchneidRemarks. Opinions here do not reflect those of Ms. Career Girl or its affiliates.