4 / 5 stars
If Juno had a smarter, more mature older sister, it would be Obvious Child. Replace the wiseass chatter of Ellen Page’s pregnant teen with the considerably more complex anxieties of Jenny Slate’s equally pregnant, somewhat stunted adult, and you’re just about there. Add in writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s ease with witty relationship dialogue and fine use of her lead actors, and you have a comedy that feels good in its own skin – and actually carries some cultural weight. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
Where Juno is ultimately a movie version of a teen mom scenario – having the support of a loving family, giving the baby up for adoption – Obvious Child opts for an abortion. This will, sight unseen, quite obviously piss off a religiously conservative audience, but Robespierre isn’t looking to prove a point or pick a fight. She’s far more interested in the emotional details attached to making that decision as a caring, confident adult woman. Or, in the case of Slate’s Donna Stern, sort of confident.
Donna is your typical Jewish, literate, New York stand-up comic, sure of her skills but full of uncomfortable quirks and self-deprecation. After her boyfriend breaks up with her in a sloppy nightclub bathroom, Donna loses her way and a bit of her feminist control. And while her role and personality is too cliché for a movie as lovable as Obvious Child, what follows is not.
Rather than pull out of her sadness with some friends and a dose of plucky personality, Donna pulls a Lenny Bruce, turning a stand-up set into an authentic rant about her breakup. You’d think this would be annoying as hell, but Slate knows how to make Donna feel disarmingly honest and true. Where so many women performers hide behind a façade, Donna asks her small audience to feel her reality. And it works.
Soon after, she meets a very un-Jewish guy (Jake Lacy), they click, they party, they share a moment. No great fanfare, no big sequence to let us know Donna’s feeling better about the breakup. A few witty barbs, some dancing and making out, and the next thing we know our protagonist is on the business end of a pregnancy pee stick.
From there, Obvious Child is clear-eyed and respectful toward Donna, without the business of carrying a political or feminist stance. She is strong with her decisions, weak in feeling she’s disappointing others. More than anything, Donna is a woman full of foibles and needs and love; the dream story here is that there is a genuinely sincere person wanting to help and be close to her. In a film that literally says it doesn’t like dumb romantic comedies (it’s in the dialogue), that’s about as strong a romantic notion as they come.
Slate, who’s been all over TV during the last year (Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, Married), portrays Donna as a bold, no-filter woman waiting to burst out of an unsure twenty-something existence. Yes, she’s flanked by excellent supporting players – Lacy, a recently resurgent Gaby Hoffman – but Jenny Slate is the reason to see Obvious Child. And she holds the promise of better comedies to come.