Monday, June 30, 2014

Obvious Child is the most charming abortion movie you'll probably ever see

Obvious Child isn't afraid to "go there," to probe deeply into every detail of its story.  It does that right from the introduction of its protagonist, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a low-level comedian who spends most nights performing at open mics in Brooklyn.  Her act is heavily focused on her personal life: bodily functions, dating woes, anxieties, insecurities.  In fact, it leads to her getting dumped by her boyfriend (Paul Briganti) in the beginning of the film, after he gets fed up with the intimate details of their relationship being divulged onstage.

The movie could be considered a "romantic comedy," since it is funny and much of it deals with the state of Donna's love life.  Her breakup leaves her in a state of despair that causes her to sleep with the first decent guy she finds in the form of Max (Jake Lacy), a dorky computer programmer she meets after one of her sets.  However, director Gillian Robespierre (who co-wrote the screenplay with Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm) avoids falling into the trappings of the genre, preferring honest, funny interactions over treacly cliches and narrative contrivances.  The romcom tendencies that the film does indulge in are subdued and restrained enough to still work.  Plus, the romantic angle takes a backseat once Donna realizes the her one night stand with Max has caused her to get pregnant.   Donna may be forthcoming about her issues in her comedy act, but is she ready to actually face them in real life?  Even Donna realizes that she's not prepared to handle being a mother, both from a financial and maturity standpoint.  She knows what she has to do.

What works the most about Obvious Child is that there's no moralizing involved.  None of the characters look down on Donna for her decision to have an abortion, and the movie itself doesn't either.  Nor does it use Donna's story as an opportunity to push hard in the other direction.  This is just about one person who made a choice about her life.  Its even-handedness comes through in one of the film's best scenes, where Donna's best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) talks about the abortion she got when she was a teenager.  She wistfully admits that it's something that she still occasionally gets sad about, but her decision is one that she's never regretted.

There's also an excellent sense of balance in the way that the movie effortlessly blends comedy and drama.  It takes on more dramatic weight around the point where Donna finds out she's pregnant, but it never becomes as dour as it could.  There are gentle bits of comedy that slip in throughout, and it's not hard to be charmed by the film, even given the gravity of Donna's situation.  Part of that comes from Jenny Slate, whose performance holds together and strengthens the entire film.  Given her pedigree in comedy, it should come as no surprise that she does a great job at making Donna a funny and likable character, skillfully delivering the script's anxious, aside-filled dialogue.  But when the time for a dramatic scene comes, she nails Donna's feelings of being untethered and unprepared just as well.

In the film's more flawed moments, Obvious Child feels very much like a first film.  At 83 minutes, the movie is already short, but Robespierre could've easily cut out the brief interlude where David Cross appears as a club owner who tries to seduce Donna.  It doesn't serve much purpose other than to add an ultimately pointless bump in the road for Donna and Max.  But it also has scenes, like the one where she visits her mother in a time of need, that stretch out beautifully and are filled with lovely little nuances.  It's hard not to consider the film a success for Robespierre -- it's a winsome and affecting debut that handles a tough topic with the perfect amount of grace.

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