The almost unfairly adorable and talented comedienne Jenny Slate finally gets a project worthy of her talents. Typical of the unpredictable performer, it’s a romantic comedy about abortion that works almost exclusively thanks to her remarkable comic performance tinged with flickers of harsh drama.
Slate stars as a struggling stand-up comedian named Donna inching towards 30 in a life defined by underachieving and good old-fashioned self-destructive tendencies. She opens the film on stage and in her element, delivering a hilarious, honest and charmingly raunchy monologue that pretty much guarantees that her in-attendance boyfriend will break up with her moments later. From there, Donna enters a downward freefall of alcohol, ex-boyfriend stalking and suicidally unfunny stand-up. The nosedive lands her in the lap of nerdy software designer played by Jake Lacy. They meet cute, bang, and Donna wakes up pregnant. It’s pretty clear from the start she won’t be keeping the baby, but some sad and funny wallowing with friends (mostly the excellent Gabby Hoffman) and parents (perfectly cast Richard Kind and Polly Draper) pushes that decision. Then there’s the fact that she actually likes her one-night stand. Through a series of coincidences and failed connections, they flirt around starting a relationship with the impending abortion hanging unspoken above their heads.
Writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s first feature (based on a 2009 short film of the same name) is an unapologetically talky affair. This is not a movie driven by visuals or spectacle (though Robespierre does have a filmmaker’s eye). Nope, it’s a film of roving conversations – some funny, some dramatic, and all truthful. She has such a good ear for dialogue and a keen sense of how to prevent scenes from playing out in the most obvious way that her film never feels dull or stale. It’s far too uncomfortably honest and hilarious for that.
The cast all dig into the material and eat up the script like a well prepared meal. Gabby Hoffman and David Cross probably steal the most scenes, but everyone’s solid. The trouble is that it’s hard to notice with Jenny Slate so strong at the center. She uses all of her natural charm and wit to make her character funny and relatable in a way that’s as amusing as anything she’s ever done. However, what’s most impressive is how she carries the film dramatically. While always remaining subtle in her approach, Slate never shies away from the tears or weight of the role, and delivers a fully rounded performance the likes of which couldn’t have been predicted from her previous work. Slate is excellent in the film and if enough people see her, this should be a star-making turn.
Despite the taboo subject matter and unflinching honesty, ‘Obvious Child’ is ultimately a romantic comedy. It’s clear almost instantly where the story is heading, but thankfully Robespierre never takes any of the clichéd routes to get there. It’s a movie that makes the deservingly derided genre look good, proving that romantic comedies can be relatable, real and even dark while still providing the warm fuzzies and feelings of romantic whimsy that get couples’ asses in seats. This is a certainly a small and slight movie, just one done well enough to prove that impact isn’t defined by purely by scale and intent. It’s a wonderful little movie wrapped around a brilliant lead performance, and that offers the welcome blast of wit and reality needed in the CGI haze of the summer movie season.