One of the biggest strengths of Obvious Child is how unconventional it feels.
It breaks a lot of conventional rules about gender roles in comedy From the lead’s very first line, we see and hear that our protagonist is foul mouthed and has no qualms about that. We’re asked to accept her for who she is. The film takes what some would consider a touchy subject and treats it with dignity respect instead of just lightly treading on the topic.
The movie has been labeled by some as abortion comedy, but I don’t feel that’s a fair or even complete assessment. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to even call Obvious Child a romantic comedy instead of just a comedy that happens to have some romantic elements in it.
The movie is more about a woman discovering her limitations. Thanks to Gillian Robespierre’s well written script, the film doesn’t dress up the topic of abortion in coded language- it spells it out through genuine conversations that feel real. There’s no politicized debate and the abortion isn’t called a mistake or unwanted pregnancy- it’s an abortion, plain and simple.
The film starts off by introducing us to Brooklyn stand-up comedian Donna Stern, played by Jenny Slate. First thing she tells us that she likes to hide what her vagina does to her underpants, which is make them look like little bags covered in cream cheese. If you’re not on board at that point, folks, you may as well stop now. But yes, Donna has a human vagina. However, she doesn’t just have fun with it by herself. She shares it with her boyfriend, Ryan, played by Paul Briganti. And lucky for Donna, Ryan has a working dick. She’s very candid about their sex life, much to Ryan’s annoyance.
So it’s no surprise when, in the unisex bathroom littered with graffiti on almost every surface, Ryan tells Donna that he’s not a fan of her being so open about their relationship. More than that, he’s been sleeping with Donna’s friend, Kate. Donna’s always at the comedy club, so Ryan never had an opportunity to talk about this before. In fact, he can’t even look her in the eye when he breaks the news.
Now in a drunken wreck at home, Donna leaves Ryan many a voice message. Coming to console her is roommate Nellie, played by Gaby Hoffmann, who allows Donna to mope, but also tells her to forget about Ryan. The next day at Donna’s job, which happens to be an Unimpressive, Non-Imperialist Bookstore, Donna learns from the store’s owner, Gene, played by Stephen Singer, that the landlord is kicking them out and the store will be closed. Well, at least he gave you advance notice.
So Donna shares her bad news with her father, Jacob, played by Richard Kind. Jacob, who works with puppets, never liked Ryan and essentially tells his daughter that it’s not the end of the world. He thought his life was over when he and Donna’s mother split, but he’s doing fine. Besides, he believes that creative energy really comes through during a person’s lowest point. Right from the start, I already like Donna’s rapport with her father.
The relationship with the mother isn’t as warming. Donna’s mother, Nancy, played by Polly Draper, wants Donna to work for one of her students, but Donna would do nothing of the sort. Nancy is firmer than her ex-husband, pointing out Donna’s flaws, such as her inability to do her own taxes, which Donna believes no one actually knows how to do. She might be right on that one. However, Nancy at least believes that Donna can do much better than Ryan.
Donna has a chance to prove her right when she stands, teary-eyed, across the street from Ryan’s home. She debates whether to go his door, but flees when she spots him, Kate and their dog. When it comes time for Donna to deliver another set at the comedy club, she drunkenly makes her way to the stage and spills more information on her personal life than one needed to hear. She even manages to slip in an Anne Frank joke. When it ends, her friend, Joey, played by Gabe Liedman, tells her the honest truth that the set was as bad as it sounded. At least he’s honest.
Donna makes her way to the bar and starts flirting with the guy next to her: nice-guy Max, played by Jake Lacy. There’s some light teasing that goes on between the two. Max, originally from Vermont, is in Brooklyn to work for a client for a few weeks at a computer program company. A couple too many drinks later, Max discovers for the first time that he and Donna probably won’t get arrested for taking a leak in public. Max needs to get out more often. When he accidentally farts in Donna’s face, she finds it funny instead of repulsive. Who knew that’s all it took to get a woman to laugh? And after a long night of drunken misadventures, Donna tries to sneak out Max’s home without being detected. She also makes sure that Max didn’t notice her cum-crusted panties on his face.
Weeks later, Donna and Nellie try on clothes when Donna notices that her boobs hurt. Nellie casually suggests that Donna may be pregnant, but Donna has never been late before. So when Nellie asks whether Donna used a condom during that one night, Donna remembers seeing the condom, but can’t remember what she and Max did with it. One pregnancy test and clinic visit later, Donna learns that she’s pregnant.
So, she would like an abortion, though the way she says it sounds like she’s ordering it from a drive-thru. Despite not taking an extended period of time to think about it, Donna is already certain that this is what she wants. The woman at the clinic schedules it two weeks from the current day, meaning the operation would take place on Valentine’s Day. Donna can’t move it to February 15th, because that’s her mother’s birthday. Well, looks like Donna’s gonna have an abortion on Valentine’s Day!
We’ll hold it there. Again, what makes Obvious Child work is how open and honest the conversations are about what some would call controversial issues. I wouldn’t call this an abortion movie at all. In fact, the actual decision to have an abortion and the subsequent procedure are decided upon pretty quickly.
Look, your personal opinion of abortion is your own. Pro-choice? That’s fine. Pro-life? That’s fine, too. This film wasn’t made to start a dialogue on the ethical implications behind getting an abortion. In fact, Donna makes up her mind pretty quickly about getting an abortion. The complications come when she learns about the cost, setting a date and whether she decides to let Max in on her upcoming procedure.
This led to one of my favorite sequences in the film where Donna asks Nellie, who has had an abortion, what it felt like. The movie doesn’t make light of abortion. We hear how Nellie felt pain afterward and still thinks about it, but she doesn’t speak with regret in her voice. This not only shows how natural of a decision this was for Nellie, but also how willing Donna is to seek outside advice on something she hasn’t experienced yet. In fact, aside from one line about men in white cloaks who legalize cunts, we don’t get deep into the political discussion over abortion. Thank goodness for that. If I wanted to hear pundits or imitation pundits discuss abortion, I’d turn on the news or scroll through any social media website anytime abortion is back under the spotlight.
One of the central messages of the film is about accepting our limitations and realizing what we can and cannot do. This is just one in many of Donna’s adventures as she comes of age. She’s not fully prepared for the real world, as her mother reminds her. We know that she has great potential, as evidenced by her test scores, but Donna finds solace in joking about bodily functions. More on that in a moment.
For Donna’s reckless action, there are consequences not in the form of the pregnancy, but the strained relationship with Max that comes from her withholding information from him. Should others who played a part in making the baby be entitled to know about a pregnancy? Does the woman owe the man anything by telling him? Should she keep it to herself? The film asks these questions, but never offers answers, which is good. Answering that serves to divide viewers, so we’re left to come to our own conclusions. From the first words that come out of Donna’s mouth, the movie’s tone is established as light hearted. It does a good job of capturing the image of a bunch of 20-something hipsters trying to make sense of their lives and figure out what they want to do in the world. This is accompanied by good writing. Robespierre’s script portrays the characters as brash and open, which works because their conversations don’t feel forced. There’s even a bit of meta humor at one point when Donna talks about how much she could never get into romantic comedies and would rater watch anything else.
As far as the humor itself, I personally have no issue with it whatsoever. We live in this age where you see women experimenting with blue humor, even though comedians like Sarah Silverman have been doing this for years. I wouldn’t say Sarah’s potty mouth is as groundbreaking as some would claim, but I do find it as a breath of fresh air. Maybe it’s because I’m a sick bastard, but I’m a proponent of more ladies letting loose with the potty humor so long as it’s written well and not so over the top that it’s ridiculous.
That’s my main issue with the food poisoning scene in Bridesmaids. Funny movie, but that scene, to me, tried too hard to be crass and blue. Here, Donna has no qualms whatsoever talking about how she loves to let loose a giant fart after her boyfriend leaves for the night. She talks of cum crusted panties and bodily functions as naturally as one would discuss the weather. And Slate’s delivery makes the jokes come off as normal conversation as opposed to forced. Am I saying that more women need to be more open about their bodily functions? Well, it’d be a nice change of pace, I’ll say that much. And even though Donna’s humor will be seen as gross for some, there are points when she realizes she’s gone too far, as we see when she bombs on stage during her second performance. But that scene came on the heels of her breakup, so it feels natural that she would be a mess on stage, given what she put herself through leading up to that set. She’s able to laugh at herself and some will find Donna whiny, but she’s fragile. I’m not saying that’s an excuse, but I get why some won’t find her funny. This humor isn’t appropriate for everyone.
As far as Donna herself goes, she feels like a big kid who still has a lot of growing up to do. She wants to make people laugh and relies on her parents and friends for guidance. Don’t get me wrong, she’s also irresponsible, such as when she forgets about the condom, but she’s trying to figure out where she fits. What she does know is that she is not ready for motherhood. Not yet.
This is, hands down, the best thing I’ve seen Jenny Slate in so far. She has such great range in the film and is good with the physical comedy as much as she is with the stand-up. Forget most of what you’ve seen Slate in until you see this film, because her performance is different than any of her past works. Many reviews reference Saturday Night Live, Marcel the Shell, and Parks and Recreation when discussing Slate’s work, and that’s fine.
What strikes me is that few people bring up House of Lies, where Slate plays the girlfriend to one of the main characters, Doug. Granted, Slate’s character, Sarah, only appears every now and then, but what screen time she’s given on that show is evidence of her ability to work both comedy and drama, which she also does here.
The side characters are used to good effect. Nellie is very outspoken and teeters on being a feminist but, to me, never fully comes across as one. She’s the one who believes that the woman owes the man no explanation regarding an abortion, so her ability to speak her mind is useful when Donna is down in the dumps and doesn’t know what decision to make next. She’s a bit brash, but not overbearing. And the fact that she’s had an abortion gives her instant credibility when she talks about how it will feel and what, if at all, effects it has on a woman’s life. She doesn’t say what Donna wants to hear, but should hear. She speaks ill of Ryan, as does everyone else in the film that isn’t Ryan, so she may be jumping on the hate bandwagon, but we don’t spend much, if any, time with Ryan since he’s not a central character.
Max is sweet from start to finish. Unlike a lot of love interests, Max doesn’t have any ill-intent toward Donna. In fact, during the morning after sex, she’s the one sneaking out of his home. He has a boyish charm to him and never comes off like a stalker or a man who randomly appears to make drama for the main character. You’d think there was a glaring flaw, such as that he cares too much, but even that is shot down because when Donna refuses an offer to hang out, he doesn’t beg and plead for a schedule change.
More than that, in another change of pace, it’s the man who finds himself getting hurt by the woman’s actions, not because of the abortion secret. At one point in the film, Donna invites Max to one of her stand-up sets. However, he arrives when the set has finished and rather than the two hanging out, Max can only watch as Donna awkwardly explains that she’s going to hang out with another friend. Only later does she apologize for her leaving him to dry, but in that one moment, he appeared genuinely hurt by a woman that he cares about.
Slate and Lacy are fun on-screen together and they have a lot of little moments where their chemistry shines, such as Donna’s surprise when Max warms up her bread or how funny she finds it when he accidentally steps in dog poo. Though we didn’t need as many close-up shots of it as we did.
Both Jacob and Nancy are supportive in their own ways. Jacob, like Donna, finds solace through humor. I actually wish we got to see more of them together because the two have very good chemistry.
And Nancy, despite calling out her daughter’s flaws, had a tender moment when she talked about getting an abortion while in college: a secret she kept from Donna until she needed to hear it. Again, it shows how abortion is something that many women deal with and, through whatever means, will go to any lengths to fix. And that’s their decision.
I have two very minor issues with the film. One involves a scene with David Cross’ character, Sam, who is an old friend of Donna’s. He just kind of randomly appears and the scene between Donna and Sam felt like it was all improvised. Cross had one or two funny lines, but ultimately, the scene didn’t add anything to the overall plot. I just feel David Cross could have been used better. And for a film that does such a good job of avoiding typical movie tropes and clichés, it did it one time in a moment that I hoped wasn’t coming. As mentioned, Max is in Brooklyn to work for a client at a computer program company. Nancy wants Donna to work with her, but Donna does not want to work for one of Donna’s clients. Can you guess who one of those clients is?
Yup, it’s Max, and I find this to be an issue because it felt too coincidental for him to be the one working for Nancy at the exact time that he and Donna have been hanging out. Just felt like a reason to get Donna and Max together for an awkward moment.
Obvious Child has nothing to hide. The script provides some very frank discussions and creates characters who feel real. This sets them apart from other movies that deal with pregnancy or abortion. Director Gillian Robespierre knew exactly what kind of film she wanted to make and she never needed to shove an agenda or spoon-feed scenes in order to get an emotional reaction out of its viewers. Abortion is just one part of the larger story about a woman who still has a lot of growing up to do. What’s most obvious about the film is that it isn’t here to preach about abortion- it’s about a real issue that men and women must confront and discuss. It’s how the film approaches the subject with such honesty and respect that makes Obvious Child feel like a breath of fresh air.