Prediction: “Expect Obvious Child to tick the usual indie rom-com boxes while somehow turning the genre on its head.”
Result: Mission accomplished.
Synopsis: A twenty-something comedienne’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time.
Jenny Slate enjoys a bit of notoriety for lasting just one season on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. While managing to earn a spot on the SNL roster despite an almost non-existent resume (she portrayed “Jenny the Page” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), Slate was unceremoniously let go after the end of her first season presumably for (somewhat) inadvertently dropping a big fat F-bomb on air.
That misstep doesn’t seem to have hurt her career one bit though. With recurring roles on television’s Bored to Death, Catherine, Hello Ladies, Married, Kroll Show, House of Lies, Parks and Recreation, and Bob’s Burgers, and voice work in The Lorax, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Slate’s been nothing but in demand ever since. Obvious Child marks her first lead role in film.
Slate’s resume could possibly generate a lot more conversation than this film, despite the interesting dovetail between Obvious Child’s presumed genre and its subject matter. Ostensibly, it’s a romantic comedy, but the material is very blue, very liberal minded, and yet discordantly, slyly whimsical.
Slate plays Donna Stern, a 30ish woman-child who spends her days babysitting an untrafficked hippie bookstore and her nights performing stand-up comedy in claustrophobic New York clubs, cutely man-bashing her overtly beleaguered boyfriend and our patriarchal society while bemoaning the many indignities of womanhood. Stern is played as an amateur hour Sarah Silverman with an offhand foul mouth that begs forgiveness by uttering each word through a coy smile. We live in a digital age where oversharing is the new black, but Stern’s routine is funny mostly because of how inappropriate she is. The character seems to think it’s funny and self deprecating and she’s bucking convention, so… go along with it.
Donna’s shocked when her boyfriend breaks up with her after one routine at his expense too many. What’s funny is how protracted the sequence becomes: Donna, drinking liquor in the men’s bathroom of the club. Her boyfriend, awkwardly finding courage to deliver the blow. And, more men than watched her show wandering past them – to and from the urinals. It’s a worst case scenario farce, made unsympathetic by Stern’s obliviousness to her own shocking immaturity.
While recovering from post break-up blues, Stern self-medicates with an excess of alcohol and random man-parts, leading to the primary conflict for the film. Becoming pregnant ignites a reality-check that forces the character to realize how unprepared for adult life she really is. Stern spends the bulk of the films’s short running time reaching out to the people closest to her, not so much for counsel – her decisions are pretty well already made – but more to reassure her that her world is stable despite her complicated change of circumstance.
The cast of supporting characters in Obvious Child do well to distinguish themselves as interesting and unique individuals in Stern’s life. Jake Lacy as Max couldn’t be any more Middle-America charming, and Gabe Liedman as Stern’s gay BFF has some of the best lines in the film. Richard Kind and Polly Draper fantastically realize Stern’s oil and water puppeteering father and college professor mother. It may be David Cross’ brief appearance as Sam, Stern’s blissfully un-self aware, laughably unappealing paramour that deserves the most praise. Man he’s creepy – and so funny.
The camera seems to view Donna’s world with the bias of her own perspective. Nobody seems particularly aghast at her stand-up, her friends and coworkers are all nice, but not particularly deep. Even Max, the new guy, is persistently supportive, despite some shocking mistreatment, and yet never developed much beyond a single dimension. At times the film feels like a romance novel fantasy – playing out as if written by Donna’s id. Everyone exists only as much as they need to, to fulfill Donna’s needs. Psychologists could write a thesis on the camera’s psyche.
Ultimately, the film isn’t trying to be all things to all people. Its liberal agenda is never in question, while its ubiquitous vulgarities blend naturally into the environment – not an act put on deliberately to shock casual observers. Those elements could potentially offend some people, but that’s something Donna Stern doesn’t seem to mind.
Obvious Child is playing at the Spectrum 8 in Albany. If you want something with the flavor of Slaves of New York, updated with a modern twist and an R rating, you wont find a better example than this.