Director Gillian Robspierre Stars Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman USA 2014 Language English 1hr 24mins Colour
Sharp but sweet. Or maybe sweet but sharp
This is a tough one to write about under ‘no spoilers’ rules. Not, as it happens, because it is high on dramatic tension. Rather because what does or doesn’t happen in the last few scenes defines the film. Because of that, most of the reviews have just spelled it out. I read a couple of reviews before I saw the film, and having a fair guess where it was going didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film.
Even so, let’s try spoiler-free for a bit. Here’s Donna (Jenny Slate) doing a highly confessional, fairly gynaecological stand-up routine in a small, scruffy bar. At the end of that opening sequence, she gets dumped by her boyfriend and goes off into something of a downward spiral.
But… well, not too much of meltdown (despite some drunken leaving of voicemails and an ill-considered, over-confessional gig), because one of the things that’s interesting about this film is the support structure Donna has. There’s her wise ever-loyal flatmate (Gaby Hoffman), the club compere (Gabe Liedman), her boss in the dying left-wing bookstore she works at, her once-successful in showbiz dad (Richard Kind) and even her business-school lecturer mother (Polly Draper), even if her mom is one of those people you go to for a hug and they insist on giving you practical advice instead.
A lot of comedies would go for laughs you could get from all if these people just making things worse for Donna. Here they don’t. But don’t come away thinking this is sappy film. The bite comes from the dialogue, from Donna’s assessment of her own situations. It might also be worth mentioning that both the Donna’s routine and the film spend a lot of time on bodily functions - not in a gross-out comedy kind of way, more in a well-we-all-piss-shit-fart-puke kind of way.
I don’t think anyone would pretend that a lot of the elements here aren’t familiar - brainy, Jewish, New Yorkers in crisis? Hardly a neglected demographic in independent film history. But this is an endearing movie, funny in places and well-always observed. The casting is spot-on – from Slate on down, they all seem perfectly comfortable as their characters. Its hook, though, is its unfussy approach to a contentious subject – which will be discussed below.
WARNING: SPOILERS ARE COMING
SPOILERS ARE IMMINENT
HERE BE SPOILERS
Right, so in the middle of her mini breakdown, Donna discovers she is pregnant. And books an abortion straight away. The film’s attitude isn’t that this is no big deal, just not the biggest deal. Other characters discuss their abortions and the fact that they feel no guilt or remorse. In the American context, that makes this a political film, even if it never feels like one.
Critics have compared it (favourably) to Juno and Knocked Up, films that only fleetingly suggested the termination option. Beyond any ethical or political considerations, the logic of film (and TV) narrative leans against early, legal, complication-free abortions. In the same way as characters going straight to the police when there is trouble or paying their debts promptly, the swift termination shuts down possible story developments.
In any sense, Obvious Child is a double winner on this front - it gets (deserved) credit for taking on a tricky topic, but also for being as low-key about it as most of the characters are.