Obvious Child (R), the debut feature from writer/director Gillian Robespierre, is a romcom in which the lead character gets an abortion. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, I’ll understand if you want to stop reading here. But you don’t have to be pro-choice to acknowledge that abortions happen in real life; and once that’s acknowledged, it’s hardly unreasonable to consider the rare film willing to tackle this issue in such a candid – and fearless – manner.
Jenny Slate, a stand-up comic and onetime Saturday Night Live cast member, plays 27-year-old Donna, a Brooklyn comedian who hasn’t yet cracked the code of actual adulthood: She can’t move past the lone club that will give her stage time, still cleaves to her divorced parents (Polly Draper and Richard Kind) and doesn’t know how to cope when she’s dumped by her boyfriend (Paul Briganti).
Things are looking up when she meets Max (Jake Lacy of The Office) one night at the club, but their odd-couple chemistry – he’s the kind but buttoned-down Felix to her emotionally rumpled Oscar – seems a little more legitimately off-putting than we’re used to seeing in a conventional romcom. Do these two nice but mismatched individuals really belong together? Maybe or maybe not, but that doesn’t stop them from indulging in a one-night stand with a sense of clumsy exploration – of each other, and of themselves. That leads to a pregnancy, and to Donna’s dilemma.
In interviews Robespierre has confirmed that, by the time she began adapting her screenplay for Obvious Child from a short film she made in 2009, she had met Jenny Slate and was writing Donna’s part with the actress firmly in mind. It shows. Slate’s self-deprecating mannerisms and spot-on comic delivery are no doubt her own, but her portrayal of Donna is so true, so real, that I wondered at times if I were watching an autobiography. This fusion of actor and screenplay is ironclad – it’s got to be the year’s strongest breakthrough performance.
Of course, the actress’ connection with her role only ups the uncomfortable factor as the plot puts Donna through her paces – fending off awkward advances from a comedian pal (David Cross), trying and failing and trying again to reconnect with Max (without telling him about the baby), and ultimately preparing for her abortion, which the gods of scheduling irony have decided should occur on Valentine’s Day.
By the time that Hallmark Holiday finally arrives it’s not hard to see that Donna isn’t ready to be a mom, but the film doesn’t pretend that makes her choice any easier. (In fact, this could be a cinematic case study of the distinction between being pro-choice and pro-abortion.) Suspending this subplot in the frothy aether of an urban indie romcom is a smart way to remind us that all aspects of human experience are worth exploring, not just the telegenic ones. And for managing to keep us laughing along the way, Obvious Child pulls off a pretty extraordinary feat: It’s a true comedy, and a true drama. Just like life.
(IMAGE: Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in Obvious Child. Photo courtesy of A24 Films.)