For all the Fox News fearmongering that Hollywood is out to indoctrinate us with liberal values, when it comes to pregnancy, the movies have for years been curiously conservative. If a woman gets knocked up, she either loses the baby by accident (cue waterworks) or carries it to term (cue hijinks). Abortion, an option chosen by one in three nonfictional women, is verboten. And if it must be discussed, the Apatow crew pronounces it “schma-schmortion,” as though the actual word is an incantation that will make laughs disappear.
It's a curious setup for a romantic comedy
But Obvious Child star and real-life comedian Jenny Slate isn't afraid of saying anything. As a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Slate made headlines when she blurted out “shit” during her first episode. Her contract wasn't renewed, a setback that this fantastic star debut has proven to be our gain. Though it wasn't written for her (four female writers worked on Obvious Child's script, although official credit goes to director Gillian Robespierre), the role of foul-mouthed, vulnerable and impregnated Brooklyn stand-up comedian Donna Stern fits Slate so well that her persona already seems fully formed, like Athena bursting from the skull of Louis C.K.
When Slate's Donna realizes she's been fertilized, she's comfortable saying the A-word. After her doctor euphemistically talks about her options, Slate straightens her shoulders and says, “I'd like an abortion, please,” then repeats herself, not because she's unsure of her choice but because she's amused by the apologetic quaver in her request, as if she's asking a server for a side of French dressing. The big question isn't whether she'll keep the child but how — or really, if — she'll tell the father that the fetus exists.
Unlike the hyper-verbal kids of Juno, Donna is so normal she's a New York cliché. She's a struggling comic too smart to do anything but chase her comedy dreams, and too cynical to bother trying to actually succeed. Her uptight mom (Polly Draper) harps on her to outline her financial future, and bemoans that she's “wasting her 780 verbal telling jokes about her diarrhea.” Her father (Richard Kind) is a creative goofball who looks like he'd give good hugs. He dotes on his scatological princess, even when he coos that she's an aberration. So do her two best friends, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and Joey (Gabe Liedman, Slate's longtime sketch partner), as though Robespierre worries that we'll get sick of Donna if every 10 minutes someone doesn't remind us that she's brave, honest and adorable.
No risk of that. Slate fills the screen like a hot air balloon, all swollen with emotions, and if she's a little thoughtless in how she treats others — Donna never once asks a question whose answer doesn't concern her — she's forgivable; her very state of being is one of lovable self-flagellation. Near-perfect SATs aside, she's mouth first, brain second, with her conscience continually trying to keep pace. Even sober, she's hung over from the last thing she just said.
During Donna's opening monologue at her regular comedy haunt, she over-shares about her boyfriend and their “functional” sex life. Five minutes into the movie, he dumps her, in part because of her act, in part because he's already sleeping with her friend. Cue Donna's stages of grief: anger, stalking, depression, bad stand-up and, for her grand climax, a drunken, unprotected night with a stranger named Max (Jake Lacy of The Office).
Max isn't her type. For one, he's so clean-cut that he looks like a serial killer, or worse, for Donna's Williamsburg crowd, what he actually is: an MBA student. For another, he's such a gentile that he may as well be a Christmas tree, to which Donna jokes, “and I'm the menorah on top that burns it down.”
Lacy's guileless charm would feel neutered if not for the arc of the plot, which hinges on his sperm count. Instead of trying to share the stage, he's happy to lean back and let her dominate the spotlight. In turn, she dismisses him as “Pee-farter,” and slips out of his bed as soon as possible without even considering whether she should leave a note.
It's a curious setup for a romantic comedy, but it works because Donna is no romantic. “I just hate that type of film,” she groans, and she'd probably roll her eyes at the script contrivances that keep her crossing paths with her one-night stand. Who knows if she and Max can live happily ever after? (It's hard to picture her making polite small talk with his business clients.) The real love story is between Donna and the rest of womankind, the silent (in movies) but sizable majority that understands her decision. What will last is the strength of her friend Nellie's support, her closer bond with her mother, and even the small smile she shares with another patient at the abortion clinic.
Pro-life audiences won't fall in love with Donna; our national politics are too polarized for that. And her sense of humor will alarm people who can't imagine wearing the masks of comedy and tragedy at the same time: Before a show, Nellie tells her to go onstage and “kill it.” Donna quips, “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow.”
But Obvious Child is perfect for those who want more honesty in fiction, and survivors like Donna who know that sometimes the only way to get used to pain is by hitting a tender spot over and over and then letting the bruise heal.
OBVIOUS CHILD | Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre | A24 | Landmark, ArcLight Hollywood