52 Films By Women: Gillian Robespierre's Funny, True, Feminist 'Obvious Child'
As a movie fan, one of the most wonderful things to witness is an actor slipping into a role like it was always out there, waiting just for them. This is what Jenny Slate does in writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature, Obvious Child.
The movie follows a stand-up comedian, Donna, played excellently and with a very real vulnerability by Slate, who has a drunken one-night stand with a man named Max (Jake Lacy) after going through a break-up. Not long after, she finds out she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion.
A fairly simple premise, shot simply and without any frills (though not without its own visual identity, as Robespierre and her cinematographer, Chris Teague, imbue New York with a particular warmth) Obvious Child stands out because of the way it treats its subject matter: unapologetically and without judgement. This shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it’s a sad indictment of the glacial pace our entertainment media seems to be progressing at that it does.
This approach is not an accident, and you would not be too mistaken to view the movie as a sort of low-key manifesto and mission statement against the frustrating tendency to tell only one particular type of pregnancy story. Or, as Robespierre herself says:
After watching many films that end in childbirth, we were disenchanted with the representation of young women’s experience with becoming pregnant. We’ve been waiting to see a film in which a woman makes a different choice - and it doesn’t define her life.
Shot in 18 days, coming in at just 83 minutes, and based on Robespierre’s earlier short of the same name, Obvious Child succeeds in its mission in an interesting way — skipping breezily along from scene to scene, delivering its message without ever devolving into a heavy-handed message movie. Dramatically, there is never really any doubt where it and its principal players will end up, and sometimes the looseness of it all borders on the undisciplined, but overall it works in its favour. Similarly, intercutting occasionally between the main plot and Donna’s diegetic stand-up routines — written by Robespierre to mimic Slate’s own stand-up style — could seem like a stylistic crutch in less confident hands, but here it works to bring us closer to understanding Donna’s mindset, driving home just how fundamentally her comedy is tied to her sense of self, as well as how she uses it to process her life and the people passing through it.
It helps, also, that Slate is surrounded by very capable supporting players. Lacy plays the romantic foil sweetly and we understand how he and Donna could hit it off; but just as important are Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as Donna’s supportive-but-honest best friends. This is a movie built on dialogue. The choice of interlocutors is vital, and the interactions between the main actors strike an effective balance between naturalistic and overly witty in a ‘written’ sort of way. In a different movie it could tip over into the latter, but here we believe that this is just the kind of people Donna would hang around with: they’re clearly very funny and witty people, but it feels like that’s just the way they are, instead of being conceived by a creator to be just so.
All of this is, however, in the end, just a backdrop for Donna’s central decision. As previously stated, we know where things are going to end up, so the richness for us as an audience comes not from trying to guess or anticipate twists and turns, but instead from simply observing this smart, vulnerable, young woman work her way through this decision within the context of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The movie could just as easily have been called Agency: A Woman’s Story. I’m excited to see where Robespierre goes from here.
Oh, and just because it’s what the movie is named after (and because it’s perfect):
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