I Don’t Expect to Be Treated Like a Fool No More, by David Bax
If I spent this whole review talking about how vital and powerful a cinematic statement Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is, you might lose sight of the fact that it’s also a comedy. It’s a very funny comedy, actually. That it is both things equally and simultaneously makes it not only a remarkable achievement but simply one of the best films of 2014 so far.
Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian who grinds out brief but blunt and candidly hilarious sets at a dingy back room of a bar (joke topics include the pressure she feels to maintain the façade of a confident woman as well as underwear stains) while holding down a day job at a bookstore. She also has a boyfriend, at least for the first few minutes of the film, right up until he tells her he’s leaving her for one of her friends. They’ve been screwing. He tells Donna all this right after she’s been on stage, in the bar’s unisex restroom, in which they are not alone. It’s shocking, humiliating and crushing to Donna, who goes into a stalking, drinking, blurting, self-pitying tailspin. Luckily, she has a roommate (Gaby Hoffman) to remind her to be at least as angry with her ex-boyfriend as she is at her ex-friend and a fellow comic (Gabe Liedman) to tell her she was funny after each performance, whether she was or not. One night, after the latter type of performance, she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a square but handsome guy who came to the bar with some clients. Donna and Max drink together, leave together and sleep together. Donna gets pregnant.
Obvious Child is told solely through Donna’s eyes and Slate reaches and breaches the heights of what is demanded from her. Slate’s television work in both Parks and Recreation and Bob’s Burgers has displayed her fervent commitment to pursuing laughs but they have only hinted at what she offers here. The same dedication she possesses for comedy is apparent in her desire to make Donna a whole and real person. She’s awkward enough to scream when surprised and then scream a second time because she surprised herself with the first one. But she’s also self-reliant enough to handle a serious medical issue with clear eyes. Donna can be assertive, smart, funny and cute (but never in a cloyingly self-conscious manner) but she can also be annoying in a way that your best friends often are. She’s good company. And she’s sympathetic in a way that makes her truly lovable.
The rest of the cast is supporting in the best sense of the word. Hoffman and Liedman – as well as Polly Draper and Richard Kind as Donna’s parents – not only feel like people you might know; it feels like they know Donna. The film itself may run less than 90 minutes but there are years of history in the simple exchanges among the core characters. Hoffman’s Nellie is a good enough friend to offer to sleep in Donna’s bed with her after the break-up but also a good enough friend to know that when Donna threatens to turn the bed into a “fart pod,” she’s not messing around. Liedman’s Joey laughs off Donna’s feigned shock when he mentions that he’s gay because she’s clearly made that joke every single time the topic has come up. Kind, as the father, knows exactly what dish to prepare to make his daughter feel better and does so without making a big deal about it. And Draper, as the mother, switches gears with ease from the urging mother of a child with lots to learn to the mother of a grown woman, both of whom have their own stories and secrets to finally share.
That pleasant naturalism extends to the presentation. We get to experience Donna’s New York the way she would. Nothing is overly art-directed. More importantly, nor is it affectedly underplayed. It’s true that Donna’s income is minuscule and that fact plays a role in the message the movie wants to impart. But she’s not melodramatically, “issue movie” poor. She’s just regular broke. Robespierre’s camera is not ostentatiously mannered nor is it assertively “realistic,” which usually just means jittery and handheld. In a commendably assured way for someone making a first feature, Robespierre’s filmmaking never calls attention to itself.
It’s exactly this avoidance of formalist grandstanding that eases the way for Robespierre to showcase her burning message. The elephant in the room here is that this is a movie about abortion, just as much as it’s a movie about people. That dichotomy is one of the pillars of Robespierre’s argument. She confronts both the topic of abortion as a political issue to debate as well as the act of a human being deciding, based on all the information available to her, to go through with the procedure. Both are important but what often gets obscured by the rhetoric is that they are not one and the same. A human being is not a talking point. Robespierre seems to believe, as I do, that safe and legal abortion is something that should be a readily accessible option to all women. But, even if you don’t agree, it would be nearly impossible to watch her wonderful film and not understand a person who chooses that option.
Near the film’s end, Donna takes to the stage and incorporates into her act the declaration that she is planning to have an abortion. She also points out that doing so doesn’t make her a freak or an outlier. It will not be a lightly undertaken procedure from which she moves on callously nor will it be the only thing that defines her and occupies her thoughts forever more. It will be one of the many, many things that makes up who she is, just as it has been for countless other women before her. The important thing is that Donna says all this while still being funny. She’s making a statement through her art in a nested version of Robespierre doing the same. Obvious Child is as successful a comedy as it is an argument for its cause.