Movie Review: Obvious Child 

This edgy romantic comedy draws you in by slowly revealing the depths of its characters.

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I’m not one to put courtesy warnings at the beginning of my reviews, but this is a case where it feels warranted. If you are strongly opposed to abortion, there’s a good chance you will be uncomfortable or even hostile toward Obvious Child.

But even being in said demographic may not make you immune to the tender charms of a film that is less about a woman’s right to decide what goes on inside her body — though it certainly affirms as much — and more about the growing fondness between two people who would seem to be the opposite of each other’s “type.”

Obvious Child has a lot to overcome before bringing us to that point of caring, the biggest obstacle being the main character, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, who appeared for one season on Saturday Night Live). We are introduced to Donna as she’s performing her lewd comedy act for a small crowd of regulars in a cozy Brooklyn bar. Nothing, it seems, is off limits for Donna, who happily shares self-deprecating tales of her bodily functions and sex life with a boyfriend who looks worn down to helplessness as he watches from the audience. After her set, he breaks up with her, sending Donna into a spiral of long hours curled up in bed and being coddled by her roommate/bestie (Gaby Hoffman).

After a post-breakup comedy set that bombs horribly, Donna meets a handsome Midwestern farmboy type named Max. A night of drunken sex between the two leads to an unwanted pregnancy.The way that pregnancy is tied up with Donna considering an abortion and Max's earnest courting gives the movie its dramatic interest, one that resides just on the edges of romantic comedy.

There are no “big” moments in Obvious Child, no epiphanies, changes in circumstance or reconsiderations. It moves along amiably, gradually working us into caring about the relationship between Donna and Max. The blithe way Donna treats her pregnancy will strike some as off-putting; her decision is framed as a big deal only insofar as it complicates her relationship (or lack thereof) with Max.

But there's a sense that Obvious Child is playing it safe with the abortion issue because of the way Donna is constructed as a character. She clearly is not equipped to be a mom at this stage of her life. She is too much of a child in an adult body, too self-absorbed.

That brings up another potential obstacle to embracing Obvious Child: its setting. Brooklyn has become, like Portland, a hub of inarguable hipness, a magical land of mid-20 to early-40-somethings who are perfect in their progressive politics, trends and urban cool and are totally aware of it. So the city’s known aura of self-regard could be seen as Donna’s immaturity writ large. And while Donna the comedian gets the approval from her multicultural, attractive audience, director Gillian Robespierre keeps the focus on a small set of characters, including Richard Kind (Spin City, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Polly Draper as Donna’s supportive father and mother.

Robespierre handles the abortion issue with a clinical matter-of-factness that I can see striking some as tasteful, and others as dishonest. Donna doesn’t even broach the subject of motherhood; without articulating it, she recognizes the weight of looming responsibility.

Those issues aside, Obvious Child is lovely in the way it depicts two people acting as mature adults, understanding when they’ve hurt the other and extending themselves to make amends. Candor and humor drive the film’s appeal. As does Slate, who is remarkable in her role, starting out as someone we at first think is obnoxious before revealing layers of humanity that make her, if not quite endearing, at least sympathetic. Donna’s stand-up routines in the film pale next to the flair for comedy she displays in her everyday life. The humor starts out rude and lewd, but as the film progresses, it softens. Much like I expect some brave audience members will after seeing this film.


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