Review: “Obvious Child” (2014)
Last night, I had the privilege of attending the Dallas Film Society’s “Members’ Premiere Screening” of Obvious Child, the first feature film from writer-director Gillian Robespierre. This screening at the Angelika Film Center was not the first showing in Dallas, however, for this unapologetically honest romantic comedy. The film, which stars leading actress Jenny Slate (who is also a comedian, “Saturday Night Live” alumna, and New York Times bestselling author) recently made its local debut at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF).
Originally a 2009 short film by Anna Bean, Karen Maine, and Robespierre which also starred Slate, it screened at multiple festivals in 2010. When the short became the subject of online buzz after catching the eye of such websites as Jezebel, Bust, and Slate, Robespierre was inspired and encouraged to expand it into a feature-length film. With the support of IFP, Rooftop Films, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the San Francisco Film Society, Robespierre and producer Elisabeth Holm were able to do so. The feature-length version, shot by cinematographer Chris Teague, went on to screen not only at DIFF, but also at Sundance and SXSW in 2014.
Obvious Child follows the story of Donna Stern (Slate), a 27-year-old Brooklyn stand-up comedian who also works at a local, independent bookstore. Her unapologetically edgy, lewd, yet warm-hearted humor is very popular with the audience at the local comedy club where she does her act. However, early in the story-line, she gets heartlessly “dumped up with” by her boyfriend, who has two-timed her for one of her friends. Shortly thereafter, Donna loses her job when the bookstore loses its lease. Then she gets a lecture from her parents on making “better choices.” Undoubtedly in need of some growing up, Donna instead plunges into some heavy drinking, moderate moping, and light stalking. Hitting a serious low point in her life, she decides to do some serious “over-sharing” of her life circumstances by doing a drunken set of breakup revenge jokes. At the end of the night, she winds up in bed with a nice young professional named Max (Jake Lacy) — a guy who is not even remotely her “type.”
Then, a few weeks after “hanging out” with Max, she finds out that she is pregnant. Completely unprepared for this turn of events, she tries to make the most responsible choice for her future. She decides to have an abortion, which she schedules at the local Planned Parenthood clinic (ironically on Valentines Day). She wants to tell Max, but every time she sees him, she can’t bring herself to talk about it. This becomes progressively more difficult for her as his unwavering kindness and their shared sense of humor make her more attracted to him. As a result, she pushes him away, but she can’t stop thinking about him. Finally, she takes a huge chance by inviting him back to the comedy club, where she plans to tell everyone in the audience about her decision. There’s only one place that Donna can be truly brave, vulnerable, and honest: on stage. Whatever Max and the rest of the audience think, she’ll be OK. And, just maybe, Max will still be her Valentine, even at Planned Parenthood.
Right off the bat, this is a potentially controversial movie, especially in a conservative state like Texas. However, the audience’s reaction to the screening was overwhelmingly positive. One reason is that this is an extremely funny movie. The script is full of great lines, which Slate and the rest of the cast deliver with perfect timing. Another reason is the film’s story, which is realistic and honest. Donna’s situation is one that many women have and will face. While Donna’s story is by no means a unilateral experience or a prescription for others, her honesty — edgy jokes included — makes her, her life, and her decisions believable.
Donna makes her choice to have an abortion while she is in a state of conflict, but she does so without shame or regret. This is a story that is not often told in the movies. Usually, on-screen unplanned pregnancies are resolved by writers and directors through childbirth or the device of “false alarm.” Using the romantic comedy genre, this film dares to tell a controversial story that has been a reality for many women, for some of whom the decision was neither romantic nor funny.
As a result, whatever side of the fence a viewer sits on regarding the issue of abortion, this movie will give him or her something to think and talk about. Moreover, it will entertain all viewers with its tightly-edited, well-acted, and brilliantly-scripted story. Yes, finally — a movie that succeeds on the basis of its well-developed, realistic story and characters, not through chase scenes, gun battles, and special effects. Isn’t that what indie filmmaking is supposed to be all about, anyway?