A major star vehicle for comic actor Jenny Slate, the purposefully awkward and thoroughly charming Obvious Child deals head on with how seemingly well adjusted adults still have a lot of growing up to do after they think they’re done with life lessons. While Gillian Robespierre’s film somewhat uneasily bears the scars of being blown up from its original form as a 2009 short film to a feature, what really matters is that the characters, situations, drama, and humor feel real and that Slate positively kills it in the lead.
Slate stars as Donna Stern, a shockingly confessional amateur stand-up comic who finds herself at a major crossroads in life. She’s just been dumped by a guy who can’t stand that she can talk more about their sex life on stage than she can face to face. She’s about to lose her job as a bookstore clerk. She’s growing even more fed up with her controlling mother (Polly Draper), but her puppeteer dad (Richard Kind) and her accepting sister (Gaby Hoffman) offer constructive outlets when she needs someone to talk to. She also finds out that she’s unexpectedly pregnant following a one night stand with a law student (Jake Lacy) who’s a nice enough guy that she almost doesn’t want to tell him that she’s getting an abortion.
Obvious Child only really stumbles when it has to stray from the path of Donna’s journey to figure out how to come clean to the man she slept with. While the humour, pacing, and individual scenes suggest that Robespierre always intended to have her film feel like a slice of life comedy more keen on situational observations instead of a grander overarching plot, the lack of characterization for every other person in Donna’s life stands out as a bit of a missed opportunity. The film centres so keenly upon Slate that it offers everyone else little to do than to just be available to Slate to play off of. That’s not to say that Kind, Hoffman, and Lacy aren’t engaging or delivering good performances, but they’re actually kind of ciphers that are just sort of in Donna’s orbit rather than characters. Every time Kind or Hoffman seem like they are about to have a breakout scene, the film pulls away at the last second so it can underline its focus. Even David Cross shows up as the douchy booker for Donna’s preferred club, but he has two scenes, neither of which do anything other than say “Hey, look, it’s David Cross.” The side characters are necessary, but sometimes so awkwardly integrated that it feels like they’re only there to stall for time between plot points.
But with the movie clocking in at a terse 85 minutes, it’s hard argue that Obvious Child isn’t at least getting to the point and getting there in the least amount of time possible. And the points that the film manages to make are still huge. Robespierre handles themes of loneliness, ego, the scarring that parents can imprint on their children, and the unease of new relationships quite beautifully with some perceptive writing and a thankful lack of false dramatic embellishment. Things play out quite realistically and while many will be quick to dub the film “that abortion comedy,” it’s really a genuinely sweet, thoughtful, and reasoned look at how people can take the awkwardness and burdens of past relationships with them throughout their lives and one person who’s finding the strength to move on in a slow but sure manner.
A big part of the film’s success has to be attributed to Slate, who balances the awkward, the absurd, the acerbic, and the aware with the dexterity of a seasoned pro. It’s almost hard to believe that this is Slate’s first starring role (or really first major big screen role of any kind), but she’s a perfect choice. What makes her such a great comic is her ability to make the audience question if she’s even really going for laughs at all. Because the film’s stand-up sequences showcase the kind of low key, sometimes boundary pushing nature of her real life comedy, Slate wisely approaches her on screen counterpart as someone who really uses her act more like a diary than someone who actively wants to make money from what she’s doing. Being on stage is her therapy, and much like any therapy session sometimes she takes it very seriously, and sometimes she’s a blubbering (and in one case, drunken) mess trying to figure out where her life went wrong.
It’s not the kind of role that an actor could exactly throw themselves at, but Slate clearly knows this type of person well and she imbues the character with subtle neuroses, fears, and quirks that aren’t on the page or expressly talked about. She’s not only selling a difficult text with an assured performance, but she’s also providing a lot of subtext to make sure that the character’s trials are more interesting than just bullet point issues. The film might not have even worked without her. It’s a pretty decent film thanks to her efforts, and hopefully it leads to a lot more work of this kind in the future.