The writing is literally on the wall in the new comedy Obvious Child, and in more ways than one. Scrawled across every inch of the film’s favorite hangout spot, a squalid unisex bathroom in the backroom of a dive bar, is just about every obscenity there is, and in just about every permutation. It’s a collage of colourful language that the film practically sets out to adapt, as every scene of Obvious Child is ripe with profanity. One tag stands out from the smut though, and it’s two words that simply say “Jenny rules.” Who is this Jenny? We don’t know. We never meet a Jenny in the film, and its protagonist is a woman named Donna Stern. But Donna is played by actress Jenny Slate, who does indeed rule, as does Obvious Child.
Slate, known best for playing high-pitched ditzes on just about every other comedy show airing these days, has a reputation for being a love-her-or-leave-her kind of performer. This makes her a perfect fit for the role of Donna, a vivacious, abrasive young comedienne eking out a living on Brooklyn’s stand-up circuit. Like most young people starting out in the entertainment business, it’s an existence supported by a menial day job, and the occasional aid of her divorced parents (Richard Kind playing the warm mensch yin to Polly Draper’s hyper-driven yang).
In the real world, Donna’s barely holding herself two inches above water. But on the stage, she’s a rock star with the face of an angel and the vocabulary of a 13 year-old stevedore. The film opens with Slate working the room like a pro, as it’s only seconds before the club’s audience and your own is hanging on her every, filthy word. In a hailstorm of jokes about bodily fluids, sex, and relationships, Donna exposes the part of her life she knows is a shared experience among other young people. Truisms and wisdom are the realm of older comics; for someone Donna’s age, keeping up hygiene and appearances, especially in the face of a life that hasn’t turned out how you expected, is effort enough.
After being summarily dumped by her boyfriend, Donna’s impulses lead her to the bottom of several bottles of wine, and the bed of a sweet stranger, Max (Jake Lacey). Earnestly square instead of ironically, Max sticks out in Donna’s Williamsburg world like a handsome sore thumb, but their abbreviated, booze-fuelled courtship is organic in every way that can be described. The end result of their one-night stand? An unwanted pregnancy for Donna.
Once the film’s only real plot element kicks in, Obvious Child starts walking a fine line between being a comedy, and the “abortion comedy” it’s been pigeonholed as since conception. It’s a tricky subject to approach from any angle, as even Donna, queen of the four-letter kingdom, gets tongue-tied around the very word when discussing termination with her best friend, Nellie, (Gabbie Hoffman), who has been through this experience before. You can see the usual beats laying themselves out before you: pros and cons being weighed out, hidden decisions exposed with inopportune reveals, lots of shouting about ethics and responsibility, and then a tear-filled monologue to put a bow on everything before arriving at an inevitable conclusion.
How Obvious Child and writer-director Gillian Robespierre do better is by sidestepping the expected controversy entirely. Rather than playing a long game of didactic commentary and moralizing, the film asks that we accept Donna’s viewpoint from the get-go. The saying in comedy goes that if you buy the premise, you buy the bit. Asking the audience to buy into the idea of a young woman facing this kind of decision with a clear conscience shouldn’t be asking much, and shouldn’t feel revolutionary. But it kind of does.
It should surprise exactly no one that a film able to de-stigmatize its divisive premise will be able to have a lot more fun with it, but Robespierre succeeds not by ignoring the elephant in the room, but instead inviting it in on the conversation. The film, like Slate’s performance, filters frank discussion of the perception of women’s health issues through the gutter mind of a real, human woman. In doing so, Obvious Child is often as enlightening as it is endearing.
Robespierre’s laid-back dialogue allows for the rat-tat-tat machine gun delivery of an Apatow joint, giving Slate a worthy tennis partner each scene to lob musing after quip after fart joke. The duo also handles the emotional underpinnings of the comedian’s life better than Apatow ever has, and at half the runtime too. Slate, a human Muppet capable of turning a cardboard box into a playground, proves herself a real onscreen talent with Obvious Child. It’s a performance that relies as much on banter as it does unanswered conversations, either when she’s baring herself on stage (recalling the kind of comedy-as-confessional honesty found in Tig Notaro’s essential Live), or just trying to leave a voicemail. It’s a star-making turn, and one that hopefully kicks off a very successful film career for Slate.
The only person ever underserved by the film’s focus on Donna is Robespierre, who creatively stages certain scenes with such flair (Donna’s Rashomon memory of her night with Max is a sketchy delight), you almost wish the performances were less engaging so she’d be forced to experiment more. At its heart, Obvious Child is a romcom through and through, but when the story does follow a cliché path, it doesn’t amount to much of an issue because getting there is so consistently, outrageously, and unrepentantly hilarious. In truth, it’s a fairly typical story of growing up, a late-life cinematic Bildungsroman, just with more bile, dung, and a misplaced Trojan. But it’s the quiet ways that Obvious Child challenges- better yet, ignores- the conventions of the average comedy that make it as filthy, charming, and winning as its star.
Insightful, hilarious, and filthy as all get-out, Obvious Child promises big things ahead for director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate.