Obvious Child opens like an episode of Seinfeld (one from the early seasons, at least). As opening credits roll on black, the sound of a stand-up comedy routine bubbles out of the speakers. Cut to Jenny Slate, illuminated against the darkness of a hazy comedy bar in New York City, mid-act, discussing an anecdote about her inability to keep her underwear clean no matter her activity level on any given day. It is a charming, confessional self-deprecating bit, the perfect sort of scene to open an independent comedy in the 21st century. In a genre more and more dominated by in media res character pieces and verisimilitude, first time feature director Gillian Robespierre has found the best way to naturally draw the audience into her world.
Based on a short film of the same name also written and directed by Robespierre, Obvious Child stars Slate as Donna, an amateur stand-up comedian and clerk at an independent book shop. After a fractious split with with her boyfriend due to an overly confessional set, Donna finds her bookstore closing out from under her. Loveless, jobless and without a rudder, Donna falls into the arms of a charming one night stand named Max (Jake Lacy). A few weeks later, the hits keep coming when Donna discovers that the encounter got her pregnant. Pushed ot the end of her rope, Donna attempts to keep her life together with the help of her roommate/best friend (Gaby Hoffman) and her parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) as she prepares for an abortion and tries to discern her feelings for her one night paramour and father to her not child.
Foundationally, Donna is not all that different from other mumblecore (or at least mumblecore-adjacent) heroines. One can find plenty in common between her and Frances of Frances Ha, or Carol from ...In a World, much of the cast of HBO’s Girls. This is not meant to be a slight, or an indication of lazy screenwriting. Yes, she is a 20-something in New York City with a bohemian career that can somehow support her ability to live in one of the most expensive cities on Earth. But that is honestly of less import than another trait she shares with her brethren, the matter-of-fact handling of life’s twists and turns, even as the real world threatens to break down the walls of her well-kept hipster life. Jenny Slate is well-suited to follow in the footsteps of the Greta Gerwigs and Lena Dunhams and Anna Kendricks of the world. She is inherently funny and self-effacing in a way that does not come off as overly needy or attention-seeking. Of course, the most important trait to look for in the female lead is the capacity for humor, and it is here that Slate exceeds expectations. Donna’s stand-up is bona fide, and that makes her believable in a way that a less natural performance would not. She is the foundation on which the entire film stands, and she holds it up with aplomb. This is, undeniably, a star-making turn.
Slate is well-supported by the rest of the cast and crew. Jake Lacy’s love interest is the exact sort of foil to maximize her ability to play off him. He has a breezy, goofy charm, the sort of overt earnestness that feels so out of place in New York, but he is not some one-dimensional Prince Charming or vacuous boob. Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind and Polly Draper are uniformly strong, providing a mix of the support Donna needs and the accountability and tough hand required to grow and meet the next phase of her life head on. Most intriguing is how cavalier the script is regarding her decision to have the abortion. It is never a question what she will do. She is not remotely in the mental or financial state to raise a child, and makes the logical decision in her mind. There is no haranguing or moralizing here. No giant screaming matches over the fate of an unborn child. It is, quite simply, a decision made by a character in keeping with what one would expect her to do, and not a cheap ploy for drama. It is a refreshing take on a taboo topic.
Obvious Child is another charming and thoroughly enjoyable entry into the ranks of modern low key indie comedies. It is a fascinating genre to critique, one that is not big on stakes (even when the stakes are arguably at their largest like they are here, it really is just life) or plotting or story. They are presented with this almost fly on the wall documentary style, not remotely concerned with the sort of motivations that lead to the Bridesmaids and the 22 Jump Streets of the world. There is no question that Obvious Child is a good film, competently directed, with some great performances, but it can be difficult to fit it into the overall ontology of film criticism. The best metric is that sense of charm, which this film and its star have in spades. The combination of Slate, her costars and the wonderfully disarming way they handle what could easily be considered the single most controversial topic in modern American society manage to elevate Obvious Child above the pack.