abortion, best friends, Best of 2014, Chris Teague, cinema, comedies, David Cross, directorial debut, divorced parents, Donna Stern, dramas, favorite films, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Gabe Liedman, Gaby Hoffmann, Gillian Robespierre, Jake Lacy, Jenny Slate, mother-daughter relationships, Movies, Obvious Child, one-night-stands, parent-child relationships, Paul Briganti, Polly Draper, Richard Kind, romantic-comedies, stand-up comedians, Stephen Singer, strong female character, writer-director
Of the many subjects and issues that continue to be hot-button topics in our modern world, few have remained as controversial and divisive as the subject of abortion. Regardless of which side of the debate one finds themselves on, there can be no denying that abortion is a deeply personal decision for any woman to make: separated from notions of religion, politics or societal constraints, abortion is, fundamentally, about a woman’s body…it doesn’t get any more personal than that.
While Hollywood has had no problem dealing with the subject of abortion, any films about the subject are, for obvious reasons, usually dramas. To my knowledge, there’s really only been one abortion-themed comedy and that was Alexander Payne’s explicitly political satire Citizen Ruth (1996). This makes writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014) even more of marvel: for what must be the first time, we have a brutally honest, romantic-comedy about a woman deciding to get an abortion that completely excises any notion of politics or outside factors. It’s simply a film about a woman navigating through life and the choices she makes along the way. It could have been a lot of things but Obvious Child ends up being genuinely funny, heart-felt, emotionally resonant, sweet and quietly insightful.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comic who specializes in relationship-based material, along with a heaping helping of bathroom humor. When we first meet her, she’s just finished her set and her boyfriend, Ryan (Paul Briganti), has just dumped her: he blames the breakup on Donna’s hectic schedule and her constant airing of their dirty laundry on stage, although he also casually mentions that he’s sleeping with someone else. Whatta guy!
To make matters even worse, Donna finds out that she’s losing her job at a bookstore due to the landlord evicting them. Good thing she has the best support system in the entire world: best friend Nellie (Gabby Hoffmann), a hardcore feminist with a snarky sense of humor and zero tolerance for anyone who wants to mess with Donna. Donna’s parents are also in the scene, albeit divorced from one another: her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper), is an uptight professional who disapproves of Donna’s act, while her father, Jacob (Richard Kind), is laid-back and tells Donna that “adversity makes great art.”
In this case, however, Donna’s “adversity” leads her to get roaring drunk before her next performance and she delivers the kind of bitter, venomous and wildly offensive set (Holocaust jokes abound) that sends the audience heading for the door. Hanging around after the set with her gay comic friend, Joey (Gabe Liedman), Donna happens to run into a nice but nerdy computer programmer, Max (Jake Lacy). After a night of drunken shenanigans (the scene where Max and Donna pee outside is a minor classic) and some silly dancing, the couple wakes up in bed, the next morning.
Flash-forward a few weeks and Donna gets the news that she’s pregnant after her one-night-stand with Max. Although she immediately tells her doctor that she wants an abortion, Donna needs to wait a few weeks, since she’s only three weeks pregnant. This would put the procedure on Valentine’s Day, a bit of irony not lost on Donna after Max suddenly reappears in her life. He knows nothing about the pregnancy or Donna’s intended abortion but he’s sweet on her and wants to take her out for a “legitimate” date. As the date of her procedure approaches, Donna tries to navigate around Max, her friends and parents, all while trying to figure out what she really wants.
Obvious Child is really quite an extraordinary film: any synopsis of the movie, no matter how detailed, will always fail to convey all of the myriad little ways that it’s so special. Indeed, it’s all of the little details and elements of Robespierre’s debut feature that make it such an insightful, enjoyable and, ultimately, sweet film. In a year that was ridiculously rich with great debut films, Robespierre still manages to stand out with this completely self-assured bit of filmcraft.
The film has a whimsical quality that’s handily reflected in Chris Teague’s excellent cinematography: rather than resembling the stereotypical indie rom-com, Obvious Child looks great. In fact, some of the shots are actually quite beautiful, displaying a really nice sense of framing and space. It seems like an odd thing to hammer home, but the film really does look fantastic: it’s one of the first things I noticed and really made an impression on me.
Performances are key in something like this, however, and Robespierre gets some absolutely first-class work from a really great cast. Draper and Kind are both lots of fun as Donna’s parents: Draper, in particular, strikes just the right balance between disapproving authority figure and loving mother. Lacy is perfect as Donna’s one-night stand, managing to be equal parts nerdy, sweet and naive. Rather than coming across as the usual “white knight” cliché, Max always seems like a real person. Part of the film’s success from the authentic feel of Donna and Max’s halting courtship: if we didn’t buy Lacy as being genuinely nice, it wouldn’t give the film as much sting as it has. As Donna repeatedly states, Max was the nicest possible one-stand-stand she could have had…but he was still just a stranger. Lacy really plays out that facet of the character and it works beautifully. There’s also a really funny appearance by David Cross as an asshole who tries to seduce Donna, leading to one of the film’s funniest setpieces.
Let’s take a few moments to extol the virtues of Gabby Hoffmann’s slam-bang turn as Nellie, shall we? Hoffman has had a pretty extensive career in film, stretching all the way back to her big-screen debut in Field of Dreams (1989), but she’s rarely been as likable as she is here. Quirky, sarcastic and unflinchingly loyal, Nellie is the perfect complement to Donna and, quite frankly, one of the funnest characters in some time. The two really do come across as best friends, which lends the whole film an air of authenticity that really makes the emotional beats hit hard. Were it not for Slate, Hoffmann would handily steal the film: any scene with her is a highlight and her performance is just more testament to what a talented actress she is.
But, ultimately, Obvious Child belongs to Jenny Slate. I’ll admit to being less than a fan of Slate’s stand-up work, although I’ve enjoyed a lot of her various voice gigs. Going into the film, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect, since I’m not a particular fan of Slate’s style: these fears were completely dashed within the first few minutes of the film. Quite simply, Slate is astounding in this, a complete and total revelation. I can’t really recall the last time that a performance so completely transformed my opinion of a performer, which might make Slate’s turn as Donna a bit of a first, in my book.
Slate’s performance is multi-faceted, subtle, low-key, impossibly sweet, suitably edged and never anything less than riveting. While Slate handles the overtly humorous material with ease (her various stand-up routines are great and her back-and-forth with Nellie is hilarious), it’s the serious stuff that really surprises and impresses. The moment where Donna finally breaks down and crawls into bed with her mother is incredibly powerful and her final stand-up routine, where she discusses her upcoming abortion with a suitably surprised audience, is a real tour-de-force. As Slate guides the scene from awkward spoken-word to a legitimately funny stand-up routine, it’s like we’re watching Donna’s entire journey unfold before us, in condensed form. I’m not surprised that Slate wasn’t nominated for any awards this season but I am incredibly disappointed: her performance was such a masterful blend of innocence and edge, pain and good-nature, that it really stood out in a very crowded field.
One of the most impressive aspects of Robespierre’s film is how light and breezy the whole thing is, despite the weighty, hot-topic subject matter. This isn’t about the legal ramifications of abortion, the “right and wrong” of it or any political aspects: quite simply, Obvious Child is about a woman who matter-of-factly decides to get an abortion because that’s what she wants, regardless of what anyone else might think. Obvious Child seems almost revolutionary for the way in which it reduces such a controversial subject to such a completely human level: there are no “talking points” here, no “agenda.” This is just about humans being human, with all of the messy stuff that always entails.
In closing, I absolutely loved Obvious Child: it was easily one of the best films of the year and Slate’s performance was, likewise, one of the best. I can certainly understand the film serving as a lightning rod for both opponents and proponents of abortion-rights but I really wish folks would just come to it with an open mind and see it for what it really is: an intensely honest, funny and smart look at one young woman’s journey through life, with all of the joy and sorrow that comes with it. When Robespierre’s film is funny, it’s a dirty, goofy little riot. When it’s time to get serious, however, she proves such a deft hand that there are never jarring tonal shifts: if anything, Robespierre has already managed to perfect Wes Anderson’s patented brand of cheerful glumness on her very first try: my mind absolutely boggles at what the future holds for her. With any luck, Gillian Robespierre will prove to be the new cinematic voice that her debut promises: we absolutely need more filmmakers like her, making more films like this.