Ever since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, “Obvious Child” has carried the unwieldy status of an “abortion comedy,” but only the second half of that label is accurate.
Indeed, this witty, lighthearted tale finds New York comedienne Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) ultimately getting impregnated by the sweet-natured business school grad Max (Jake Lacy) and deciding to undergo the procedure without telling him. It’s a choice that immediately distinguishes the movie from every other entry in the genre, from “Knocked Up” to “Juno,” in which the impregnated heroines eventually decide to eschew the procedure for the sake of some unspoken duty. The casual way that “Obvious Child” writer-director Gillian Robespierre (building off an original 20-minute short) rejects that tendency with her own character’s decision is a welcome rebuke.
But the decision itself isn’t funny, nor does it dominate the plot, which is reliant on more clichés than suggested by the hype, and a lot more approachable. “Obvious Child” focuses on the sloven lifestyle of its leading character, whose boyfriend dumps her in the first scene after she works their sex life into an onstage bit that also includes a fart joke. Donna’s smarmy, outwardly sloven delivery carries over into her personal life, which finds her relying on her close pal (Gaby Hoffman) and supportive mom (Polly Draper) during uncertain times. Eventually she meets the affable Max at a bar (“you’re really lasering into me with your pee pee missiles,” she tells him) and forms an offbeat relationship in which she constantly avoids the prospects of commitment, even after figuring out that she’s pregnant. Ultimately, the question of whether Donna will or won’t settle down isn’t nearly as interesting as the way she constantly avoids that question with her giggly demeanor. By placing the abortion in the context of a much broader series of events, Robespierre normalizes it.
That’s only a significant development in contrast to other treatments of similar material. (Another recent exception is “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in which the off-screen abortions are only one factor among many hardships facing its angst-riddled characters.) Much like Jonathan Lisecki’s hilarious “Gayby,” Robespierre’s energetic script glides along with a sustained goofiness found in the best studio-produced comedies while focusing on an experience that they tend to marginalize. In this case, the underrepresented material finally receiving its due is bigger than the abortion dominating headlines: “Obvious Child” gives the best bits to a woman, and lets her irrepressible wit dominate.
As a filmmaker, Robespierre brings no fancy tricks to the table, but empowers Slate with plenty of bubbly one-liners to bat around. The always reliable Richard Kind, as one half of Donna’s divorced parents, lands the key line that provides “Obvious Child” with its central motif: “Creative energy often comes from the lowest point in your life.” Laid off from her gig at a bookstore and stumbling through a series of uneven stage routines, Donna’s well-positioned to take that to heart. The rest of the cast is positioned to support her: Hoffman, whose recent performances in movies like “Crystal Fairy” form a significant response to onscreen female archetypes in their own right, barely gets the chance to do more than support her friend’s grief; Gabe Liedman plays the traditional gay member of the group with plenty of zest but little substance in a handful of scenes. Yet the story exclusively belongs to Donna, a point made especially blunt by the bland quality of the man she eventually falls for. Though Max is a good time, he’s a sorely underwritten character, but that’s in part because Donna chooses to perceive him that way. We’re in her world from start to finish.
Not unlike “Louie,” the movie’s awash in the uncertainties that dominate Donna’s life and seep over into her comedy. Through it all, Slate’s rascally screen presence maintains a friendly quality: Never as acerbic as an episode of “Girls” or condescending to its setting, “Obvious Child” makes its premise go down easy. As Donna defies her dramas with jokes, the hackneyed series of events that define her life are made more palatable than usual. The abortion twist may drive conversations and give the media a natural hook, but the real triumph of “Obvious Child” involves its ability to make familiar ingredients work just fine on their own terms. In doing so, it makes up for a lot of lost time in the pantheon of female-centric comedies, and studios would be wise to take note.
A24 releases “Obvious Child” in several cities this Friday with a national expansion to follow later this month.