DIRECTED BY Gillian Robespierre
STARS Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy
In writer-director Gillian Robespierre's debut feature Obvious Child, based on her own short film from five years ago, Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate) is a stand-up comedian, and what instantly struck me was the awfulness of her routine. Her material, which wallows in crudity the way a pig wallows in mud, is of the frat-boy variety, displaying little of the biting wit or social relevance that made household names out of profane comics from Richard Pryor to Margaret Cho. And because our first glimpses of Donna are as an obnoxious performer, we fear that we won't shake our negative vibes over the course of the picture. No worries there. As a character, Donna Stern proves to be a mirror reflection of the movie surrounding her: intelligent, spirited, honest and more than a little awkward.
As the movie gets underway, we see Donna losing her boyfriend and her job in rapid succession (neither through any fault of her own). She can always count on sage advice from her best friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and Joey (Gabe Liedman) and good cheer from her teddy-bear dad Jacob (Richard Kind), though her relationship with her mother Nancy (Polly Draper) has grown a tad frosty over the years. She needs something to lift her out of the doldrums, and she finds it in Max (Jake Lacy), a squeaky-clean guy who digs her quirky humor. But before you can say "formulaic rom-com," Donna discovers that she's pregnant.
Of course, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up already looked at pregnancy within the structure of a comedy, but this film is an entirely different beast. Though the film is rife with humor, the pregnancy itself is handled with refreshing candor, and Robespierre never blinks as she examines her lead character and understands that here's someone who's simply not ready for motherhood. Obvious Child is bold in the way in which it confronts one of the most controversial issues of our time and proceeds to treat it in a matter-of-fact manner, and while this approach will infuriate many, it's also reflecting the realities of the world in which we live.
While Donna Stern as a stand-up comic may not be especially amusing, Donna Stern as a person can be very funny, and Slate, familiar from Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, is excellent as the banzai-haired woman-child who wields humor the way David Ortiz wields a baseball bat. As the blond, bland Max, Lacy proves to be a choice counterpoint to the more extroverted Donna, while David Cross, as a grasping acquaintance of Donna's, knocks his brief interlude out of the park. In fact, everyone scores with this unfussy and unassuming piece — and no one more than Robespierre, a bright new presence in a directorial landscape that can obviously use a bit more girl power.