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Catching Up On 2014: Josh Reviews Obvious Child

December 31st, 2014
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Sometimes an actor will have a role, small or large, in a TV show or movie that I love so much, that for me the glow of that work will follow them in my mind, making me always interested in their future work.  And so it is that Jenny Slate’s role as Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation had me intrigued when I first read about Obvious Child, in which Ms. Slate plays the lead role.

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This is a difficult film to describe in some ways.  There is some romance and there is some comedy, but thank heaven I would not describe this as a romantic comedy.  There is some serious drama in the film, but that drama sits right next to the comedy.  This is a film not afraid to shift wildly in tone from scene to scene.  I can’t quite say that it all works for me, but there’s certainly a lot about this weird little film that I enjoyed.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a Jewish girl in her late twenties who works at a going-out-of-business independent bookstore and who also performs at night as a stand-up comic.  After discussing her boyfriend one night in her act, he dumps her in the comedy club bathroom.  This leads Donna to fall into something of a bad spiral, but after a particularly bad drunken performance, Jenny meets Max (Jake Lacy), a nice handsome guy.  The two have a fun, drunken one-night stand, after which Donna discovers that she is pregnant.  I’ve already told you more than I should — most descriptions of this film that I have read take you even further into the story and I’d rather leave it here.

Jenny Slate is terrific in the film, bringing an endearing, chatty energy to the role.  She has a strong naturalism to her performance, and she brings what feels to me like a unique voice to a film leading role.  She (and the film) do not shy away from a crude joke or a bad word, and that is putting it mildly.  It’s interesting, the film begins with one of Donna’s stand-up performances, and neither my wife nor I found it at all funny.  It was more awkwardly off-putting than funny.  I didn’t really care for any of Donna’s stand-up work in the film.  I don’t think that was necessarily what the filmmakers wanted an audience-member to feel, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the character of Donna and Ms. Slate’s work in bringing her to life.  It’s fun seeing a vibrant young woman brought to life on screen in a way that doesn’t feel overly “safe” or sanitized for all audiences.  This is a character who could fit in well on Girls.  (My mind went there because Donna’s best friend and roommate is played by Gaby Hoffmann, who was so memorable as Adam Driver’s character’s sister on the third season of Girls.)

It’s not a main element of the film, but I also found myself intrigued in thinking about the film’s depiction of Donna’s conflicted feelings about her Judaism.  She doesn’t appear to be Jewishly observant in any way, and she mocks the idea of going to a synagogue, but that doesn’t stop herself from constantly describing herself as a Jew, or as a “big menorah.”  As a Jew myself, I didn’t find this self-mockery all that appealing.  But what’s striking about this film, and Ms. Slate’s work, is their fearlessness in presenting us with this character, Donna, warts-and-all.

This film succeeds based on the work of Ms. Slate, but she’s ably supported by a fine ensemble.  I already mentioned Ms. Hoffmann, who is very memorable as Donna’s best-friend and roommate Nellie.  Ms. Hoffman makes Nellie into a three-dimensional character, rather than just a one-note “best friend” boring cliche.  I was also very taken by Jake Lacy’s work as Max, the handsome dude who Jenny hooks up with.  Mr. Lacy popped up on the last season of The Office, and this film makes better use of his handsome everyman looks combined with his comedic chops.  It’s hard not to root for those two crazy kids to wind up together!  Gabe Liedman is also great as Joey, Donna’s fellow comedian.  I like the chemistry between Mr. Liedman and Ms. Slate (who have apparently known one another and worked together for years) — they really feel like there’s an established backstory between them, the tight history that good friends share.

These great young actors are joined by some bigger names in smaller roles.  The great Richard Kind pops up for a few scenes as Donna’s father, and David Cross has one great, wonderful scene as a fellow comedian who tries to put the moves on Donna.

Obvious Child is also notable for the frank way in which it deals with abortion.  This is not a “comedy about abortion,” but an abortion figures very heavily into the film’s second half, and I was impressed by the way in which this was handled in the film.  I’d like to quote from Peter Travers’ review of the film in Rolling Stone, though there are spoilers here so if you haven’t seen this film yet perhaps you should stop reading here.  Mr. Travers writes: “Donna never doubts the wisdom of having an abortion. And Max, played by Lacy with laidback charm and sneaky wit, never doubts her right to make her own decisions. By Hollywood standards, these acts count as revolutionary.”  This is not a message movie about abortion.  But the film is strongly, unashamedly, pro-choice.  The film does not make light of having an abortion, and we spend time with Donna as she considers the decision, and, in one of the film’s more memorable moments, the camera lingers quietly on her face as Donna begins to undertake the procedure.  (That moment is one of Ms. Slate’s most impressive acting moments in the film.  Very subtle, controlled work.)  These moments add nuance and depth to the story, while not in any way altering the film’s strong pro-choice stance.

Writer/director Gillian Robespierre has created a vibrant, engagingly unique piece of work.  This is not for everyone.  Not everyone will find this funny.  Not everyone will enjoy the film’s shifts in tones.  As I wrote at the top, not all of this film worked for me.  But enough of it did that I enjoyed the experience of watching it very much.  I like seeing new and different points of view expressed on screen, and Obvious Child certainly counts as that.

Plus, naming your film after an awesome Paul Simon song?  Good choice!

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