Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, "Obvious Child" has consistently been referred to as "the abortion romantic-comedy," a reductive — if still fairly accurate — description of the film, which manages to tackle a hot-button issue with wit and honesty, while operating within the confines of a crowd-pleasing (and filthy) romance plotline.
In Gillian Robespierre's charming new film, Jenny Slate (a scene-stealer on TV's "The Kroll Show" and "Parks and Recreation") plays Donna Stern, a struggling stand-up comedian living in Brooklyn. We meet her at a low point in her life: her boyfriend, tired of seeing their romantic troubles become material for Donna's routine, unceremoniously reveals he's been sleeping with a mutual friend. Shortly thereafter, she loses her bookstore day job when the owner announces he's being forced to close the store. Reeling from the recent breakup and loss of income, she goes on a bit of a bender, resulting in a drunken one night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), a preppy, nice-guy business student she meets out at the bar. A few weeks later, she discovers that she's pregnant.
There's never any suspense about whether Donna will go through with the pregnancy; knowing that she's not at a point in her life where she can be a mother, Donna makes her decision to have an abortion early on and she never wavers from it. The crux of the story lies in whether, or even if, she's going to tell Max about what's happened once she decides that, though she knows she doesn't want to have his baby, she might like to keep Max around.
"Obvious Child" deserves credit for even attempting to tackle a topic that most films still shy away from. Even in recent comedies about pregnancy, from "Juno" to "Knocked Up," abortion was still treated as the word that dare not speak its name, and it's an option that the characters in those films seem barely allowed to consider. For this film to face it head on is refreshingly ballsy, particularly in a genre that's typically associated with a certain cookie cutter sameness. That it handles the subject respectfully while also being laugh-out-loud funny is nothing short of miraculous.
Despite its penchant for crude humor, writer-director Robespierre (expanding her 2009 short of the same name) is never glib. Yes, Donna sometimes makes tasteless jokes about the position she's found herself in, but with her choice of career it's fitting for her to have little filter, and it's always clear that she's not making her decision lightly. What feels even more revolutionary is the way, by talking candidly about her situation, Donna learns that other women in her life have faced a similar decision and come out alright and finds that she isn't so alone. The film steadfastly refuses to judge these women for their choices.
But the true key to the film's success is Jenny Slate's endearingly foul-mouthed performance. If you've seen her past work, the fact that she's funny isn't surprising, but the way she handles herself during the film's more dramatic moments is revelatory. She conveys a vulnerability. You can't help but root for her; we want nothing more than to see her get her shit together. Her character may be a mess now, but Slate's performance reassures us that she won't stay that way forever. It's a fantastic, career-defining performance.
This is Robespierre's first feature, and it does occasionally feel that way, but there's an impressive naturalism and a genuine sweetness beneath all the crudity. She admirably keeps her film to a fleet-footed 84 minutes, though that brevity does seem to come at the expense of giving Max the time to feel like a fully-realized character. Lacy makes him exceedingly likeable, but in the end he's not much more than that. While Donna feels like such a real person, the film would feel more balanced if that insight were extended out to Max's character as well. But that isn't a film-derailing problem; after all, this isn't really his story.
Slate is backed up by excellent work from Gabby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as Donna's supportive, straight-talking best friends, in addition to Richard Kind and Polly Draper as her divorced parents. Comedian David Cross also contributes a great extended cameo as a skeevy, self-involved fellow stand-up.
"Obvious Child" treats a sensitive, extremely difficult topic with respect and maturity, which might seem at odds with the constant fart jokes, but somehow Robespierre makes it work. Regardless of its politics, the film emerges as an appealing, relatable story of a young woman simply looking to make the right choice for her own future.