Comedy Film Review

Truth, Consequences and a Film Review: Obvious Child

June 20, 2014Ben MK

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Obviously not your average rom-com

By Ben Mk

Quirky comedies are a dime a dozen these days. But it's not often that you come across a quirky comedy that also addresses the seldom-discussed realities of life with frankness and poignancy. That, in a nutshell, sums up Obvious Child. The first feature from indie writer/director Gillian Robespierre takes an irreverent and skewed look at romantic entanglements from a female point-of-view — while broaching a subject long considered taboo by the mainstream media — and the results are both funny and heartfelt.

SNL alum (and the co-creator and voice of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, not-so-mild-mannered Brooklyn bookstore employee by day, stand-up comic by night. If there was ever a prime example of the female equivalent of a man-child, it's Donna: smart and witty but not a big fan of dealing with the responsibilities of an adult existence. On the other hand, when she's in front of an audience with a mic in her hand, the world's her oyster, as she tackles the inanity of life with equal parts fervent cynicism and brutal honesty, usually while drawing upon her own experiences and relationships as fodder for her routine.

But when she's abruptly "dumped up with" (as she so eloquently puts it) by her jerk-of-a-boyfriend, Donna finds herself in a funk — something that not even the catharsis of an onstage rant can snap her out of. Turning to her trusty support system — her best friend Nellie (Gabby Hoffman) and her gay best friend Joey (Gabe Liedman) — she tries to make sense of her situation. They encourage her to explore her options, so she ends up under the sheets with a handsome stranger named Max (Jake Lacy). But instead of being the solution to her woes, the one-night stand ends up causing her an even bigger problem — the kind that takes nine months to gestate.

And so we arrive at that critical juncture in the story where your typical romantic comedy would bring together our two leads and have them go through a whirlwind courtship before they boldly embark hand-in-hand on the journey of unplanned parenthood (à la Knocked Up). But instead of zigging, Obvious Child zags. No, instead of going the obvious route, Donna is quick to instruct her doctor, "I would like an abortion please." And just like that, the film hits a turning point.

It's also where it finds its stride. Robespierre and Slate ground both it and the character with a believable awkwardness — the kind that would naturally arise out of the corresponding real-world scenario — as they invite us to bear witness to Donna's fumbling attempts at finding her way out of her predicament. There's a scene in the middle of the film that's emblematic of their storytelling approach, in which Donna's plan to break the news of her pregnancy (and her plans to terminate it) to Max over lunch is humorously derailed by his observations about the elderly couple a few tables over and his remark that he "can't wait to be a grandpa." What's worth noting about that scene is that it has less to do with Donna trying to gain Max's adoration and more to do with her trying to give him the explanation that she feels she owes him. And in that sense, the story registers less as a straight-up rom-com and more as a coming-of-age tale with a romantic twist.

Just don't construe that as equating Obvious Child to, say, a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. In fact, it's the farthest thing from. Robespierre's dialog is sharply-written, filled with hilariously keen observations and crude jokes laced with profanity, and Slate, Hoffman and Liedman bring it to life with their glib and giddy delivery. On the flip side, Lacy, Richard Kind and Polly Draper are handed the more traditional rom-com roles as the would-be suitor and Donna's supportive, divorced parents. They bring a certain sweetness to the story that softens its snarky edge, but in a film that already has plenty of bite, having a little heart doesn't hurt it one bit.

The Bottom Line

Some films blindly uphold the status quo, while others happily upend it. When it comes to the dividing line, Obvious Child doesn't leave any room for doubt as to which side it falls on. From the way that it skewers genre norms with its refreshingly frank and funny take on relationships and their consequences, it's clear there's really nothing obvious about it. Now if only there were more movies like it. [★★★★]

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