Overview: Stand-up comic Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) has a one-night stand, becomes pregnant, and struggles with how to tell the father that she plans to have an abortion. A24 Films; 2014; Rated R; 83 Minutes
Not Another Brooklyn Movie: It’s easy to dismiss Obvious Child because of how tired and played-out it might seem. “Great, another indie film about a young woman living in New York City who just can’t seem to get her life together. Pass!” The comparison isn’t invalid on a surface level, but Obvious Child doesn’t feel manufactured or cliche. Almost everything about it feels genuine, and while Donna Stern may loosely fit an archetype, she’s never beholden to it.
More Like Jenny Great: If Obvious Child is remembered for anything, it will be as the film which rocketed Jenny Slate to stardom. Though she’s not the film’s only merit, she’s certainly its strongest. She imbues her character with uncommon richness and emotional depth, and that goes for the film as well. While other films of this type use emotional vulnerability as a punchline, Slate pulls it off in a genuine way. Her performance’s emotional nuances never feel self-aggrandizing. Some of this obviously goes back to writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s screenplay, and in large part it has to do with the decision to make Donna a comedian. Slate subtly shows Donna using her comedic sensibilities as a defense mechanism. She masks her pain and confusion with jokes. It’s a rather brilliant bit of characterization, and the fact that the film never comments on it or makes a plot point out of it is deeply satisfying. The real joy of watching Slate’s performance is she deftly manages depicting severe emotional turmoil, but never in a showy way. She’s destined for greatness in the very near future.
First-Feature-itis: Robespierre isn’t quite so flawless. Obvious Child is her first feature, and it shows in a few places. A handful of devices (such as a single scene wherein Donna has a conversation with herself in her head) and visual metaphors (such as a scene Donna spends sitting in a cardboard box. She feels “boxed in” by the weight of her personal life, you see) are heavy-handed and self-conscious. Other than those few bits, though, it’s a remarkably self-assured and relaxed film. Its warm and inviting color palette can be difficult for some indie films to achieve while working with a low budget and, more importantly, digital cameras.
The Taboo Tackle: Even more important than all of that, though, is the film’s take on abortion — or, more accurately, its lack of a take. It’s perhaps one of the boldest and most uncompromising films ever made on the subject, although that’s not exactly a large canon. Donna is never challenged on her decision to have an abortion on an ethical basis. The film takes it as a given that Donna’s well-being – physical and emotional – is the only thing that matters. Not even the father (Jake Lacy) gets a say, and Donna struggles with how to tell him about her pregnancy. Obvious Child isn’t interested in giving a voice to every side of the argument. It’s not interested in changing anyone’s mind either. It depicts abortion as a fact of life, and not one that comes without emotional strife.
Wrap-Up: While certainly not perfect, Obvious Child is vital in its depiction of abortion and as a showcase for the talents of Jenny Slate.