Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child has earned justifiable acclaim for its candid approach to abortion, but the bittersweet indie rom-com begins with a comparably authentic portrayal of the stand-up comedy scene.
The film opens with Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) performing a set in a tiny room behind a Williamsburg bar. Donna quickly establishes that her favorite themes involve bodily functions, with riffs on "what vaginas do to underpants" and her efforts to avoid farting around her boyfriend.
One bodily function gives Donna more material than she bargains for, however, when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand. Anchored by a deeply felt performance by Slate, Obvious Child proves timely, funny, and well-observed. So few films address not just abortion, but the female perspective in general, that the low-key comedy feels almost revolutionary amid the big-budget toys-for-boys summer movies.
Obvious Child initially plays as a "loser" comedy. Donna's boyfriend breaks up with her in a bathroom, inspiring a flurry of angry late-night voice mail messages. Plus her day job at a bookstore (named "Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Bargain Books") goes into jeopardy, leading Donna into a phase of drunken, undisciplined comedy sets in which she voices her unhappiness without crafting jokes or considering her stage presence.
Donna has a chance meeting with yuppie business guy Max (Jake Lacy), who seems wholesome and straight-laced, but has enough humor to hang with her comedy pals. Their one-night stand includes a montage of Donna dancing in her underwear to the drum solo from Paul Simon's song "Obvious Child," and it's one of those moments of movie alchemy that conveys, yes, this character might be a sad sack. At the same time, Donna's also got a spark that justifies having a screen story built around her.
Their tryst leaves Donna unexpectedly pregnant and sends her through a series of encounters many mothers face: waiting for the results of a pregnancy test; visiting a health clinic; stressing over the expense of the procedure when she has no insurance. Keeping the child's not an option for Donna, but the film never trivializes the choice, which weighs heavily on her for the rest of the film. Robespierre's screenplay, based on her 2008 short film, includes exquisitely written discussions with Donna, her mother (Polly Draper), and her best friend (Gaby Hoffmann) about their own experiences with abortion.
Obvious Child proves much more willing to face uncomfortable realities than past comedies about unplanned pregnancies such as Juno and Knocked Up. The latter caught some justifiable flack for its male point of view, but at least shows its immature protagonist taking steps to grow up. Obvious Child's arc for Donna seems more implicit. She stops wallowing in self-pity, seems to get her drinking under control, and delivers a killer comedy set, but it's not clear whether she's going to turn over any new leaves. It's like the film doesn't want to judge its protagonist too harshly.
Obvious Child is the rare film that feels too short, leaving you wishing to see the main character grapple with some of her issues more fully. Slate's Donna looms larger as a film heroine because there are proportionately fewer at the Cineplex at any given time. Robespierre's film proves that there are more frank but funny female-oriented stories waiting to be told, and more audiences ready to support them — a point that should be obvious.