Until now, audiences haven’t had much choice when it comes to how pregnancy is handled onscreen. Attacking the status quo with infectious humor rather than strident criticism, Gillian Robespierre’s uproarious “Obvious Child” centers a good, old-fashioned romantic comedy around a woman’s decision to abort a one-night stand gone wrong. While pro-lifers are liable to picket its existence, this refreshingly honest date-night laffer — snapped up by A24 at Sundance — hinges on a versatile turn from Jenny Slate, a wildly funny (if somewhat scatologically preoccupied) comedienne finally given a chance to reach deeper than her frequent guest-starring appearances have allowed.
The film’s fate relies heavily on whether audiences embrace Slate as a leading lady, seeing as how she plays a variation of her own persona: a standup comic who can’t resist poking fun at any life situation, no matter how serious. After being dumped by her b.f. (Paul Briganti), Donna Stern (Slate) tumbles into a mopey depression, seeking solace from her divorced parents (Richard Kind and a great-to-have-back Polly Draper) and super-tolerant/supportive best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman).
Donna’s comedy, already colored by her uneasy tendency to over-share (the pic opens with a cutesy routine about feminine flatulence), takes an even more uncomfortable turn after the breakup. After one of her more disastrous shows, Donna meets Max (“The Office’s” Jake Lacy), a handsome but square business-school grad who makes a fine rebound, but isn’t at all her type.
When Max comes courting a few days later, Donna has no idea what to do — and even less of a clue when a pregnancy test reveals her to be pregnant. The timeline’s a little murky here, although director Robespierre (who adapted the feature from the 2009 short co-written with Anna Bean and Karen Maine) observes her hopelessly immature heroine long enough for most to agree with the prognosis that Donna’s not quite ready to be a mom.
And so, with Donna’s mind made up about terminating the pregnancy, “Obvious Child” plumbs each and every awkward moment that follows to its full potential — not that the gags should be confused for standard sitcom material. The humor springs either from real-world recognition, as Robespierre and her co-writers go where others fear to tread, or in response to the cast’s lively, eccentrically lived-in characters.
Certainly, much of Donna’s appeal owes to Slate’s ability to ad-lib, though her dramatic range comes as a nice surprise: The entire situation puts her through some understandably wild emotional swings, and Slate proves more than equipped for the ride. In fact, it’s the teary scenes that prove most affecting, as when Donna finally finds the courage to confide in her mother, or in the clinic itself, where a callback to an earlier joke about Crocs footwear sneaks into the most poignant shot of the film.
Robespierre manages to cover a lot of psychological ground in just 83 minutes (no doubt, the short proved good practice), and things clip along briskly until Donna’s big appointment, which she was anti-romantically forced to schedule on Valentine’s Day. Here, the film toys with the question everyone saw coming — will she or won’t she? — complicated by the fact that Max turned out to be a pretty good guy after all. Let’s just say it’s a tough choice, though the fact that “Obvious Child” recognizes it as a choice makes all the difference.
The other difference, of course, is that this is a female-driven comedy with a refreshingly distaff-strong crew, written by a trio of clever modern gals, where the guy is cute and all, but clearly a lesser factor in the central drama. (Same goes for David Cross, who pops up in a creepy cameo as Donna’s boss, while Gabe Liedman — Slate’s hilarious offscreen gay best friend — is stereotypically adopted as one of the gals.)
“Girls” may have broken ground when Lena Dunham unsentimentally chaperoned her best friend to an abortion appointment, but “Obvious Child” goes one further by putting Donna’s decision in a well-rounded context. Treating the subject in comedic terms, rather than with movie-of-the-week solemnity, makes a strong statement unto itself, acknowledging that auds are familiar enough with the subject to relate. And for her follow-up? Robespierre says she’s preparing a comedy about divorce.