(USA, 84 min.)
Dir. Gillian Robespierre, Writ. Gillian Robespierre, Karen Main, Elizabeth Holm
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedeman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper.
“There’s nothing on but romantic comedies,” says Max (Jake Lacy) whilst flipping through the movie listings during a sweet moment with Donna (Jenny Slate). Donna replies that she doesn’t really care for rom-coms. “I can’t relate to them,” she says.
Obvious Child marks a notable departure for romantic comedies. It’s the unconventional rom-com for folks like Donna who can’t relate to the artificial sweetness of the average lovey dovey chick flick. Obvious Child, for one, has substance as it tackles relevant issues with realistic awkwardness and candour. The Sundancey dinginess of the film turns down the usual high-key lighting euphoria of the rom-com, and invites the audience into the real world. Donna, a stand-up comic, casually confronts issues that most films—and people in everyday life—shy away from acknowledging in the name of convention and the status quo. Her awkward on-stage banter, which plays like equal parts truth-telling and word vomit, uses laughter to ease through the awkwardness and the bullshit to make a punchline out of the biggest joke of all: spotless tales of happily-ever-after.
Obvious Child has spots galore, as noted by the references to (and shots of) Donna’s icky vaginal discharge that might be a cinematic precedent. Jokes about peeing and farting are one thing, and Obvious Child pairs them together—on a date, no less—to help give audiences something familiar as it peppers the humour with raunchy jokes and casual references to things previously unmentionable. Some viewers might be taken aback by the spunky comic’s offhand remarks about her lady parts, though, but the comedy of Obvious Child is (superficially, at least) akin to Seth Rogen cracking jokes about boners, cum, and ball sweat.
If Obvious Child seems shocking, it shocks only because its protagonist is a woman. This very fact necessitates the film’s place amongst must-see summer fare. The film calls to mind the anecdotes by Joan Rivers in the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work in which the comic recalls her early days of stand-up comedy and says that her gender made risqué material seem far more taboo. However, the fine balance of raunchiness and sweetness in Obvious Child makes it a very timely entry into the world of independent film voices in the industry are calling for more films by women.
Obvious Child marks a much-needed turn for romantic comedies by putting an ordinarily fallible female character in the lead role. The aforementioned movie date between Donna and Max, in which Max peruses the channels, marks the only scene in the film where he’s essentially in the driver’s seat. Donna wears the pants in Obvious Child and it’s undeniably refreshing.
Director Gillian Robespierre and fellow co-writers Karen Main and Elizabeth Holm fashion an alternative love story grounded in believable characters, honest dialogue, and frank attitudes towards gender and representation. Obvious Child puts Donna in a situation familiar to the genre, but the film tackles it in unfamiliar ways. (Unfamiliar in the cinematic sense, anyways.) A hot drunken night with Max (who, atypically of the dashing leading man, farts in Donna’s face on their first date) leaves Donna pregnant, which is hardly the best turn of events since she just lost her day job and can’t get her shit together. Baby makes three in rom-com lore, but having a baby at this exact moment in Donna’s life probably isn’t the best thing for Donna, Max, and, well, the baby.
Before audiences can even say Knocked Up or Juno, Donna decides to have an abortion. What barely gets a fleeting mention in the former comedy or serves as a dark unseen antagonist in the latter adds a serious talking point in Obvious Child. A baby isn’t the express route to a romantic relationship. Rather, Obvious Child uses this definitive point in Donna’s life to reflect upon how far she has come even though her life seems to be in disarray.
Humorous back-and-forth banter between Donna and her roommate Nellie (an intimidating Gaby Hoffman) gives Obvious Child a positively pro-feminist chorus. Nellie insists on putting Donna’s fate in her own hands by leaving Max out of the equation, which somewhat muddles the message of Obvious Child. Nellie’s anger sometimes sharpens the gender dynamic of Obvious Child into a polarized us/them binary that threatens to undercut the importance of the film, since Nellie frequently pits Max as an unwitting antagonist even though he pursues Donna completely unaware that she is pregnant. Donna, however, treats Max as a hesitant ally instead of as a foe. Robespierre conveys this dynamic strikingly in one scene where Max visits Donna at work while she packs up a box of books and remains seated in the box, protecting herself from Max and from the possibility that telling him about the pregnancy could result in decisions that strip her of her agency. The scene ends badly for Donna, though, and this turning point in the film shows the danger in leaving things unsaid.
On the other hand, there is one sweetly telling scene in Obvious Child, perhaps the highlight of the film, when Donna decides to reveal her pregnancy to her mother (Polly Draper). Previous scenes with Donna’s divorced parents contrast a jovial dad (Richard Kind) who plays and paints with puppet, and a no-nonsense mother who makes spreadsheets to plan Donna’s life. It’s therefore understandable that Donna might fear that her news will upset her mother; instead, Donna sheds her pants and cuddles up with her mom under the blanket, and they share an unexpectedly intimate moment. Robespierre frames mother and child so tightly that when Donna starts to cry while giving the news, a hand creeps into the frame to wipe a tear from Donna’s cheek. It’s her mother’s.
Donna’s mom takes the news with relief. “At least you’re not moving to LA!” she replies before going on to tell Donna that she herself faced a similar situation during her university years, but since abortions were illegal back then, she had to truck out to Jersey and have the procedure done on the kitchen table of a stranger. Obvious Child presents the topic matter-of-factly and shows that the experience allows for personal growth regardless of the option one chooses.
Obvious Child realizes this when Donna finally decides to forgo the push-and-pull courtship she and Max enjoy since their first night together. She decides to put the topic out in the open and make it a laugh in a return to form performance on the stand-up stage. Her appointment, fatefully, is scheduled for Valentine’s Day, so Donna can’t help but laugh at the irony of her best/worst Valentine’s Day ever. She hits her stride in the material, however, by putting out into the open things her mother had to keep a secret. The revelation might seem unfair for Max, but Obvious Child smartly lets Donna define her fate on her terms.
The final stand-up routine is a defining moment in Slate’s winning performance as Donna, for she uses her comedic chops to celebrate the awkward messiness of Donna’s story. She empowers her through the frankness and the confidence of her performance, which marks a notable turn from Donna’s earlier stand-up scenes that range from outrageously hilarious self-deprecation to cringe-inducing ruminations on her perceived failure. There’s an honesty to Slate’s performance that makes the finale of Obvious Child refreshingly endearing and, above all, surprisingly relatable for a romantic comedy.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Obvious Child opens in theatres this July.