Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Expect to be Treated Like a Fool No More: OBVIOUS CHILD


Amiable though it is, the indie comedy Obvious Child is nonetheless a clear political act, all the more successful for how unassuming it is. The movie follows Jenny Slate as Donna, a struggling stand-up comic living through her late-twenties in Brooklyn, navigating her relationships both personal and professional. In this story, small and sweet, writer/director Gillian Robespierre uses her directorial debut to tell a good, simple, character-driven story, and assert the basic personhood and agency of women. It’s sad to think that’s controversial in any way in 2014, but here we are and so it can be. Donna is faced with difficult circumstances in this film and arrives at a decision that’s right for her and the people around her. Robespierre deftly walks an attention-grabbing concept down an emotional and tonal tightrope, all the more effective for making her film with specificity in the writing, preserving a sense of healthy respect for a woman’s right to choose her own path.

We first meet Donna when she’s being dumped. In a state of depression she complains to her warm father (Richard Kind) and frostier mother (Polly Draper), cries on the shoulder of her earthy roommate (Gaby Hoffmann), and gets drunk with a stand-up pal (Gabe Liedman). She’s doing shots when she bumps into Max, an attractive stranger (Jake Lacy). Sparks fly. They go back to his place. They dance goofily to a Paul Simon album. They have sex. Through the fog of her hangover the next morning, she’s unsure if she wants this one-night-stand to go any farther. Over the next few weeks, they keep finding their way back into each other’s lives for tentative flirtations in scenes charmingly fluttering with romantic potential. This is all standard cutsey low-key romantic comedy stuff of the indie persuasion, but it’s enlivened by likable performances that convey a sense of specificity to these people and their lives. The movie is about the uncertainty and awkwardness of struggling to get a foothold in a creative industry and making meaningful personal connections, allowing the struggle to sweat it out on the characters’ expressions.

Into this mix comes a notable complication. Donna discovers that she’s pregnant. She decides to have an abortion, but her appointment is a few weeks away (and on Valentine’s Day, of all days). And so she doesn’t tell Max right away, a clear obstacle to figuring out whether she wants to date him. What works for handling a topic like abortion in a comedic context is the way the procedure itself is never a joke and hardly used for cheap dramatic stakes. It’s discussed. (Hoffmann has a line about old white men in black robes making decisions about women’s health that has an extra timely bite after a certain recent Supreme Court ruling.) Nor is the movie saying hers is the only valid decision a woman can make. It’s a fair, nonjudgmental film that looks generously and compassionately on its characters, weighing their feelings with a degree of care. It’s a movie that features calm, productive discussion of abortion without letting it overwhelm the whole. It features as much crude stand-up, flatulence, silly banter, and sarcasm as it does tenderly written and acted scenes of real emotional openness and welcome candor.

The screenplay (from a story by Robespierre and collaborators Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm, and Anna Bean) sometimes stretches to fill its runtime. It has some weaker, self-absorbed patches and scene-long tangents that feel like typical debut-film bugs. It’s shot simply and modestly. But what makes the movie such an affectionate, positive experience overall is the way it makes clear in all aspects that its characters are specific people who can’t be easily reduced to stock types. Most people, men and women alike, don’t live rom-com lives that conclude happily ever after at the altar or in a delivery room. Here is a movie for people whose idea of a happy romantic comedy ending would be curling up on the couch to watch a movie. How refreshing to see a movie about romance that sweetly embraces the complications of life. In Slate’s performance is a character who is bright, driven, insecure, and struggling, manipulating her voice and mannerisms as if she’s always self-consciously performing, cutting awkwardness with a barbed comment. It’s a terrific, complicated performance in a comedy full of characters with real, convincing presences.

Obvious Child is a movie about characters who make all kinds of decisions about their lives, arriving at them honestly. It’s a film that intends not to score points, but to provoke empathy. Slate makes Donna intensely sympathetic. She may not make it as a stand-up comic. She and Max, good chemistry between the actors aside, may not have a relationship in the future. But the uncertainty of the struggle is what makes them so compelling, and the way they resolve conflicts so understandable. It finds humor in its situations out of what makes its characters tick. Take the scene where she finally confides in her mother. They have the following exchange. Donna: “I’m pregnant and I’m thinking of having an abortion.” Mom: “What a relief. I thought you were going to say you were moving to L.A.”

It’s a small movie, but it is bighearted smallness, humble, personal, funny, and quietly important. And in this particular case, about this subject, that is far more powerful than a screed would ever be. Robespierre has a made a film that’s warm and specific. It allows its characters room to find what works for them at this particular point in their lives. This isn’t a universal recommendation or a solution. It’s freedom. Would that we all could have such freedom of choice.

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