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Review: Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014)

Directed by: Gillian Robespierre  

Premise: A young woman (Jenny Slate) living in New York City and working as a standup comedian meets a new guy and unexpectedly gets pregnant. 

What Works: Obvious Child has caused a minor stir in the press, with a lot of articles and reviews describing it as a romantic comedy about abortion. That description is technically true but it also mischaracterizes the film. Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about a woman who gets an abortion but there is more to this film than that. Jenny Slate provides a terrific performance as a young woman who is drifting through her life, spending her days sort-of working in a bookstore and her nights at a comedy club performing stage sets. She isn’t especially committed to anything and so she does nothing especially well. There is a great reality to Slate’s character; she isn’t a misunderstood genius but she does expose herself on the stage, making light of her heartbreak. The act establishes empathy for the character by making her vulnerable. After the opening scene, in which she makes light of her love life, Slate’s character is dumped by her boyfriend and she rebounds with a nice Midwestern college student. The rebound results in an unplanned pregnancy which she decides to abort. The duration of the film is not really about her decision to terminate the pregnancy but rather about her relationships with her family, friends, and the new man in her life. This movie works not simply because it is funny, although it frequently is. Like many movies about comedic characters, Obvious Child has a melancholic center that is obfuscated by the humor. Slate’s jokes highlight this, especially her cruder remarks. And Obvious Child is a frequently crude movie with the characters discussing sexual and excretory functions or cracking wise about the pregnancy. This crude humor works for the movie; as juvenile as it is, the humor is often a way for the characters to voice their worries and preoccupations. That is indicative of the earnestness of the main character and of the movie as a whole. It’s the juxtaposition of the sadness of the main character’s life and her humorous reaction to it that gives Obvious Child a lot of its humanity and that is the film’s most outstanding quality.

What Doesn’t: The humor of Obvious Child will have a narrow appeal. On the outset, this is a movie about abortion but unlike most films dealing with that topic it does not dwell on the decision making process or on the procedure. That’s going to make this picture untenable for a certain segment of the audience even though that aspect is part of what makes it unique. However, Obvious Child also limits its potential audience in the tenor of its humor. This is a movie in which the main character is a New York based standup comedian and movies about starving artists in this city tend to have a shared flavor. Obvious Child has characters and humor very similar to television shows like Girls and movies such as Sleepwalk with Me. The insular, self-absorbed hipster temperament of starving artists can become grating especially when the characters pine for sympathy. The filmmakers of Obvious Child recognize this and play the whining for laughs instead of pity. Slate’s character learns to take responsibility for herself and this, combined with the film’s genuinely funny moments, make the self-indulgent bits more bearable. As a story, Obvious Child is more of a character study than the kind of narrative that audiences generally expect from a motion picture. The movie works as an exploration of this woman’s condition and the filmmakers clearly intend to disrupt the typical structure of a romantic comedy. However, the film would benefit from a little more conflict and more concrete stakes.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette, deleted scenes, the original short film version of “Obvious Child.”

Bottom Line: The humor of Obvious Child will have a narrow appeal but the film has a humanity that transcends its other trappings and it features an impressive performance by Jenny Slate.

Episode: #517 (November 9, 2014)