PARK CITY, Utah — You’ll know within the first 30 seconds if Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” is for you. As the opening credits roll we hear snippets of Donna Stern’s stand-up act, a mix of frank body function humor and Jewish gags. Amid commentary about the cleanliness of her private areas, Stern, played by “Saturday Night Live” alumni Jenny Slate, refers to her look as both a bagel salesgirl and Natalie Imbruglia crossed with a menorah.
There’s no point in trying to hide Stern’s Jewishness with a punim like that, so her shtick, both on and off stage, is loaded with Semitic speech. When she sees her roommate (Gaby Hoffman) dressed a certain way she refers to her as “a lez back from Birthright.” Not everyone will get the reference, but luckily Slate’s portrayal of a confused twentysomething struggling with life is universal.
Her caring parents are divorced. Richard Kind is a philosophical puppeteer/television producer who supports her in following her dreams. Her mother, Polly Draper, is a professor of business and is gently nudging her toward more responsibility.
Mom lives on Riverside Drive, but Donna is strictly Brooklyn. At the comedy club one night she meets a nice, WASP-y guy (Jake Lacy), who brought clients there to see real, live hipsters. Despite misgivings about flirting with him (“he’s so Christian it’s like he knows Santa personally!” she quips to her gay friend) they have a few drinks and go home together.
Cut to a few weeks later and, whoopsie, Donna finds herself in the family way. She decides to terminate the pregnancy, but as Planned Parenthood (and the rules of scriptwriting) demand, the procedure can’t be done for a few more weeks. Wouldn’t you know that’s just enough time for a coincidence to bring Lacy’s character back into Donna’s life. Of course, he doesn’t know that Donna is pregnant, and that she has a forthcoming doctor’s appointment. What commences is a good-natured, albeit foulmouthed romantic comedy centered around an abortion.
Strict religious types may condemn me, but from my seat Robespierre rooted this pro-choice, pro-mixed marriage film in the soil of Jewish values. Donna Stern is a modern spin on the classic, probing intellectual. Despite a few tweaks, her values and love of family are rather traditional.
Importantly, any movie about a comedian had to be completely free of B.S. to work, and when the constant japing and zetzing turns a tiny bit serious, “Obvious Child” has the goods to come through.
The most emotional scene comes when Donna tells her mother about her plans, and the mother confesses that she, too, had an abortion, and has no regrets. Most movies — and maybe even most people — would portray something like this as either absolutely groundbreaking or with a cavalier machismo. “Obvious Child” goes down the middle. This is serious business, but the characters will survive because they are strong, they have friends and family they can count on and, importantly, they have their sense of humor.
Jenny Slate’s Donna is front and center of every moment of this film, so a lot rests with her. She’s an absolute natural — and I’ll leave it to others to question if she’d be a bigger star if she looked a little different.
The film is a tad rough around the edges, though, as is to be expected from a low budget production with a first time filmmaker. A musical dance break lands kinda dead up on the screen, but it would be hard to cut it out now — the titular Paul Simon song is on the soundtrack. However other real world decisions work well.
My guess is the production had access to hotshot comedian David Cross for only one or two days. Rather than shoehorning him in, his two scenes afford Donna an opportunity to learn some things about herself and her situation. It isn’t just used as an opportunity for Slate to bounce funny lines off of a famous comedian.
Some of my favorite people in the world are quick-witted, dark-haired New York Jewish feminists who don’t really have their sh*t together. Were it not for a key chromosome I’d be one myself. To say that this film spoke to me is an understatement. But beyond the identity politics and humor, “Obvious Child” goes the extra mile to represent a seldom voiced, moderate position about a hot button topic. That’s something of a punchline you don’t see coming in the set up.
Obvious Child was picked up for distribution by A24 Films