Obvious Child is scarily easy to explain in a sentence: abortion rom-com. But, like every stupidly short terrible elevator pitch explanation, that doesn’t even begin to cover the whole of what this complicated, hilarious, strange and wonderful little film is about.
Jenny Slate stars as Donna, a young stand up comedian living in New York City, going through a massive breakup. With her job in peril, and her life in shambles, she manages to get knocked up after a one night stand with a handsome stranger, Max (Jake Lacy). Without hesitation, Donna decides to get an abortion, and spends the next few weeks dealing with the stress and struggle of her decision.
Directed by Gillian Robespierre from a story by Robespierre and a small cadre of others, the movie’s focus is, as so many movies are these days, the aimless independence of the twenty-something. While on paper this sounds like it could be either slightly icky or massively unpleasant, Obvious Child manages to navigate these treacherous waters gently and comes out the other side mostly unscathed. To see a film written by, starring, and focusing in on the experiences of women is such a treat it feels shady to even drum up too many criticisms, (also, ugh, “criticisms” how boring), and the movie does so much so handily, that it’s easy to forgive any slight missteps throughout (I really liked even the slightly cheesy moments — a thought dialogue between Donna and her brain, to a moment where Donna and Max try on each other’s shoes).
Jenny Slate is best known for a single season on SNL, but I like her most as a regular performer on Kroll Show, and as Jean Ralphio’s sister on Parks and Recreation. She seems like the kind of girl that people either love or can’t stand, and I am firmly in the love category. Obvious Child relies heavily on Slate’s comedy chops, and she comes through in a big way. It’s easy enough to see that Slate is a born entertainer, a girl who loves to make other people laugh, and is willing to do whatever she needs to, to make sure that happens. Most importantly, as Donna, she never seems irritatingly incapable, but rather the right amount of unable-to-deal, perhaps I excuse it since I find myself existing in a similar state. Donna’s feeble attempts to recover from her breakup are touching and familiar, and her acceptance of her new circumstances is admirable. From her physical comedy to her way of expressing, Slate carries a difficult film with grace and ease.
The casting throughout is well done, but never more so than when it comes to Donna’s parents, played by Richard Kind and Polly Draper, surprisingly fun to watch — long-divorced, concerned and incredibly involved in Donna’s life. Jake Lacy as the eternally pleasant and well-meaning Max is almost too good to be true, and his golden retriever good looks had me constantly doubting his essential goodness, which is probably intentional. Two other incredible bright spots as Donna’s friends are Gabe Liedman, Slate’s real life longtime comedy collaborator and Gaby Hoffman. Hoffman displays restraint throughout, tempering her usually strong and outgoing vibes, intentionally allowing Slate to shine. While it’s not an obvious performance, the most I think about it, the more it strikes me as the work of a real pro.
As a woman, it’s impossible to watch the film without playing the Well, What Would I Do? game at nearly every step of the way, and worrying that somehow it was about to transition from hilarious, tightly wound comedy to something drecky and preachy, but no one talks down to Donna or tries to dissuade her. Instead, from every angle, she is supported, and two of the most important women in her life alternately share their experiences with abortion. Yet, the film isn’t intending to persuade anyone one way or another, there’s no glorification of the experience — instead, the entire issue is handled honestly, thoughtfully.
Obvious Child is the kind of movie that shouldn’t be so surprising. Yes! There is a way to discuss these difficult things without resorting to awkward nonsense or heavy handed drama, yes there are other people dealing with the things you’re dealing with, and they are making art and you can see it right now. It shouldn’t feel like a groundbreaking revelation when someone makes something good, something true and real. And yet it still does, and there’s something wonderful about art that can still surprise and delight. Obvious Child is worthy of contemplation, for as much as it does not say as for what it reveals about the way we think about ourselves. Also, it’s actually funny, and there’s precious little of real funny in the world these days.
Amanda Meyncke lives in Los Angeles, follow her on Twitter.
(For the record, I hate the top image so much since it looks like she’s crying about her abortion which she isn’t in that scene, but it was weirdly hard to find any usable stills from the movie that were any better, so here we are.)