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Friday, June 27, 2014

Movie review: Abortion fuels an unlikely but winning rom-com in Obvious Child

Posted by on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 11:42 AM

click to enlarge The laugh-until-it-hurts material is just underneath the raw humor in Obvious Child - COURTESY OF WALT DISNEY PICTURES
  • courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
  • The laugh-until-it-hurts material is just underneath the raw humor in Obvious Child
Obvious Child
★★★1/2
Now playing


Obvious Child is the kind of underdog indie movie that just makes you glad all over. Glad that the people responsible made it. Glad that other people, with more money, were smart enough to get it into theaters. Glad that you saw it, and glad that other people will see it, too.

Co-written and directed by Gillian Robespierre in her feature film debut, Obvious Child stars actress/comedian Jenny Slate as stand-up comic Donna Stern. In the dingy basement of a Brooklyn club, Donna delivers the sort of underground alt-comedy popularized in the '90s by comics such as Marc Maron, Louie C.K. and Janeane Garafalo—confessional, rambling, frequently filthy and achingly honest.

As the movie begins, Donna has just been dumped by her boyfriend, in the crowded bathroom of her own comedy club, no less. (The restrooms are co-ed, evidently.) Rattled, Donna finds comfort in her friends and tries a little halfhearted stalking. Things get worse when she loses her day job. A few weeks later, she gets sloppy drunk and enjoys some delirious rebound sex with a stranger.

Donna soon discovers she's pregnant, and the rest of the film follows her decision to get an abortion. She doesn't take the decision lightly, and neither does the film. But she does treat it as a legal and sensible option—a fact that has, ridiculously, upset some people.

Still, as a rom-com premise, it's a set-up that could go wrong a million ways. It never does, thanks to the sophisticated storytelling and the rigorous emotional honesty on display. That rawness powers the film's humor, as well—on a couple of levels. Obvious Child may trade in dark irony and graphic sex jokes, but those are the surface gags. The really funny stuff—the laugh-until-it-hurts material—is just underneath.

Donna is a compelling character. She doesn't seem entirely in control of her hair-trigger wit. Like a lot of comics, she deploys comedy as a countermeasure to tragedy. But she is so funny, and so fast, that she surprises herself half the time.

That surprise registers as delight on the face of Slate, whose performance is extraordinary. Her ability to toggle from dark despair to blunt sex joke to childlike absurdity suggests that she may be the secret love child of Louie C.K. and Gilda Radner. (I did the math, and it's possible.) Slate was a successful underground comic before being let go after a one-year stint on Saturday Night Live, where she notably slipped up and dropped an F-bomb on the show. She has since found success with the adorable short film series Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. If the universe is at all just, or even moderately discerning, she'll be a movie star after this film.

Other strong performances come from Gabby Hoffman as Donna's bestie, Richard Kind and Polly Draper as Donna's parents, and David Cross as a sort of waking cautionary tale about the comedian's life. Obvious Child is a real delight, and Jenny Slate is the real deal—both deserve a bigger audience. 

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Sophisticated storytelling and emotional honesty uplift a premise that could have gone wrong in a million ways

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