Watching Saturday Night Live a couple of years ago, I would never have as much as thought that I would be now writing an article praising the performance of the girl who did the “And More” sketches. But it’s 2014, and here I am, sitting astounded by Jenny Slate’s transparent, emotionally naked performance. Obvious Child is an honest romantic comedy about a woman in her late twenties, a stand-up comedian who infuses her life into her performances every night. It is not a movie about abortion, as many would have you believe, but rather a story about mental awakening where an abortion works as a MacGuffin in order to propel the story along. It is not a work of genius, nor is it the best of the genre, but on-the-face honest and unrestrained, it is undeniably poignant.
Donna Stern is a stand-up comedian who, while not anything unique, is liked by the bar crowd for her honest telling of the stuff happening to her, which sends them into pleasant laughter. This probably sums up the entire movie, which doesn’t avoid most romantic film tropes, but yet manages to catch the eye in its confidence to tell it as it is. She works in even the fights and such she has with her boyfriend into the show, and we know that secrecy is not the first thing on her mind. In many ways, Donna is still a child, not having grown mature with respect to things, having her own fun with everything. But she is not oblivious to serious matters, and her vulnerability is also magnified to the point where her reactions are a mix of childish and over-the-top. Obvious Child is more a character sketch of Donna rather than anything else, even the romance. It takes us through a variety of emotions and the way she reacts, and in doing so, draws one of the most detailed, in-depth looks at character. It hides nothing, not the most disgusting and not the most beautiful, especially like the moment outside the club with Max. This scene in particular is very representative of the movie, showing how Donna brings out both the best and worst in people, but does not get turned off and accepts everything. This is how she manages to effortlessly talk to buzzed strangers about everything. Above all, Donna is not ashamed.
There is little to be talked about in terms of technicalities, but they are not intended to be dwelled on. This is yet another movie in the long list this year that takes time with its characters, allowing them to steal the spotlight. And stealing the spotlight is exactly what Jenny Slate does in this tad emotional tale. Having just been dumped by her boyfriend, Donna does not come out strong, and instead recedes to the confines of her bed, and is seen repeating almost every rom-com cliché – from leaving drunken voicemails to waiting outside their ex’s apartment – but with a certain charm that can’t quite be placed, but presumably from the overgrown child she is. Swiftly passing over these, the movie then goes back to the bar we started out at, where we now see a broken comedian, not being able to keep her emotions at bay and away from her act, since she’s been open so far. Instead of hearty chuckles and applause, what she receives this time around are awkward stares and a few walk-outs. No doubt this is what adds to her self-realization that she cannot afford to dwell on these things for too long. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story for someone in their late twenties, who forgot along the way that they were supposed to grow up.
There are only three times we see Donna in her act at the pub, and these act as bookmarks for the exact place she is in, at that point. Cleverly playing into her using her life for comedy, the film uses the comedy to track changes and in turn, for comedy. First time around, we see a perky girl who, though going through some troubles in her personal life, has not faced something that can break her cheer. She chooses to, as always find comedy and laughter in brashly exposing her relationship in front of everybody, which is a person only she can be. Ryan, who is not such a person, immediately finds in this a nag to bring up to lead to the break-up, which he has probably been looking for all this while, considering how he has been involved with someone else for a while. This then leads into the second act (haha, pun intended) with a drunken Donna now seeing no comedy in her situation, but despair and sorrow, which translates as extremely dark comedy, if you want to look at it that way. Come final act, having picked herself up after the fall, she finds comedy in her situation, though it may be conventionally viewed as a predicament. But it is to be noted that this final act arrives having missed a step, somewhere in the middle where she had planned an act, but does not see herself up to it. This is extremely important and must qualify as the missing act from her arc, for it is the bookmark for the place Donna was in, too confused from the pregnancy and conflicted about Max. Her already fluctuating moods, courtesy of the pregnancy, and the sudden appearance of Sam, who she has a not-too-happy history with, don’t help the situation. This is probably the darkest place she is in, throughout the stretch of the movie, where she has even lost her courage to step up and perform as she loves.
You must remember that this is a movie with unplanned pregnancy and abortion in its pages, both of which have been touchy topics within Hollywood, and possibly all literary culture. But it is in the minimal importance afforded to these elements that the magic of Obvious Child resides. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to realize that this was not the story about coming to terms with pregnancy that it promised. It is precisely for this reason that I recommend Donna’s story to anyone who loves cinema and in particular, comedy. Not in that obvious, loud laughter-inducing way, but one that’s more close to heart, riddled with subtleties. Donna as a character is herself capable of bringing out smiles and tears, very much like the stand-up that she does. Finding the right ratio of farts to tears, the brash and at times disgusting comedy places itself quite nicely next to the tear-jerker that it has to be. Uninhibited in style and confident in delivery, Obvious Child hits many right notes, while also glossing over many others. Admittedly, there is a very much imposing presence of cliché and convention in this romantic story, perhaps set off only by the good performances from the solid cast, and the honesty with which it deals with its characters. But aside from that, be prepared for several touching moments with her mother, coincidences that seem a bit too convenient and above all, a male lead that just seems in the right place and the right time, all the time. After you see him appear at the bookstore, and then her mother’s, you can’t help but groan at his arrival at the club the very moment Donna is about to get into the car with Sam. Wouldn’t she have informed at the very least the time at which she would be performing? But in other moments, which would otherwise be way too emotional and touching, the cheese is off-set by sudden laughter or dirty jokes from Donna, and subsequent awkward laughter from Ryan, as he tries ever so hard to keep up with her style.
For a slightly conventional and predictable plot, Obvious Child makes up in heaps with its honesty, which is delivered by its characters with impeccable style. Ironic, since the divergent quality of the heroine is the lack of style or grace in particular. Jenny Slate is sure to amaze you with her true performance, exuding childish charm in both sway and voice. Also particularly notable are Gaby Hoffman, who plays Donna’s hardened, and very husband-like Nellie, and Gabe Liedman as her ever-queer friend Joey. Richard Kind and Polly Draper are also appropriate in their roles as her parents who pamper to no end and let her play the child. Probably the most unconventional female on screen this year (With Rosamund Pike’s character in Gone Girl, it was no easy match) the film rests itself entirely on the seemingly incapable shoulders of Donna, who manages to blossom and deliver a performance that is worthy of being called a ‘revelation’. Obvious Child, while falling into many tropes, both direction-wise and plot-wise, pulls off a story that is honest and revealing to the core, as unashamed of its emotion as of its blunt, naked comedy. And I mean that last part in the nicest of ways.