Thursday, June 26, 2014
Review: "Obvious Child"
There's a new style of serio-comic storytelling centered around the disheveled lives of twentysomething New York City women. Movies like "Frances Ha" and "Obvious Child," and the HBO show "Girls," revel in the wretched squalor of their stunted careers and the hapless hopelessness of their romantic entanglements.
The fact that these tales usually feature female directors and/or writers only adds to their sense of neurotic authenticity. As is also common with young women singer/songwriters these days, they make use of their messy real lives as fodder for creativity.
I was underwhelmed by "Girls" and "Frances Ha," but "Obvious Child" is the charming best of the lot, mostly due to the vibrant presence of Jenny Slate. You may know her from being on "Saturday Night Live" for about a minute and a half, and punch-funny turns on TV shows like "Parks and Recreation."
But for most people she's a new face and voice, and my guess is it's one they'll want to see more of. She's pitiable and yet admirable, a born screw-up who we end up rooting for.
She plays Donna Stern, a not-much disguised version of her younger status as a rising stand-up comedienne. By day she works/sleeps in the tiny Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Book Store -- "it's a Manhattan institution," she insists -- and at night plows through drinks and stage sets with her fellow workaday comics.
Her shtick is embarrassingly honest appraisals of her own life, including the opening monologue where describes the spectacularly drone-like sex she has with her current boyfriend -- who happens to be in the audience, and she knows it. He promptly dumps her, and Donna quickly rebounds with an impossibly WASP-y fellow named Max (Jake Lacy) she drunkenly picks up at the bar.
If you've heard anything about "Obvious Child," it's probably in some vague terms about it being an "abortion comedy." This is true, and also not. It's accurate that Donna gets pregnant from her one night stand and speedily decides that she's not ready to be a mother. She schedules an abortion at the earliest convenience, which happens to be Valentine's Day.
Needless to say, this is not a plot designed to elicit warm feelings from the right-to-life crowd.
"You're going to kill it," her best pal Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) offers as encouragement as Donna prepares to do a set the night before the procedure. "Tomorrow I am!" she responds chirpily.
But I don't get the sense writer/director Gillian Robespierre set out to antagonize anyone, and certainly doesn't foist any lectures about 'my body, my choices.' Rather, it's an honest, funny and brave portrait of a young woman trying to navigate her way through life, and often hitting the icebergs. This is Robespierre's first feature film, based on a short movie she made a few years ago with a different cast.
Slate and Lacy have real sparks between them, a magical coupling between the loudmouthed Jewess and the uptight New Englander. They each represent something exotic to the other, and despite the strained circumstances of their situation -- she doesn't share the news with him at first -- they manage some genuine romance, or at least the modern facsimile of it.
A montage dance scene set to the Paul Simon song that gives the film its title is carefree and breathtakingly sexy, despite the fact it doesn't really show much flesh.
The film has a few other drop-in performances from more recognizable actors -- Polly Draper and Richard Kind play Donna's parents, who each love her in their own way, and David Cross turns up as a more successful comedian.
But it's Jenny Slate who gives "Obvious Child" its heart and soul, a silly but satisfying heroine for this day and age.