Chances are, Obvious Child will not be a particularly controversial movie. Few indie romantic comedies are; they just don’t have the visibility. (And, the armchair sociologist in me thinks, they tend to be screened at theaters whose patrons rarely protest movies.) But if, by some fluke, the film did enter the national consciousness, there could be some heated discussion—not to mention an impassioned placard, or three. Central to the movie is the issue of women’s reproductive rights, so its very premise is a hot topic. But what’s more compelling and/or troubling, depending on your own politics, is the emotional tone as that premise plays out. It is, after all, as stated, a romantic comedy.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a 20-something stand-up comic living in Brooklyn. Though she is admired by other comedians and has some minor following, she is far from established or secure. All the trappings of post-college uncertainty are offered up: money trouble, unstable relationships, minor impulse-control/alcohol-abuse issues. Whether you find this at all sympathetic will have something to do with your tolerance for the angsty chaos of the overeducated, underemployed young adult still able to borrow money from her parents. (I’m interested to know if this common characterization has lost its comic utility or sympathy in an economic era when adults with established careers find themselves a paycheck away from catastrophe. Just curious.) But it will also have something to do with the distinct presence of Jenny Slate, in the lead role.
Slate’s performance is natural enough to suggest that she is, in essence, playing herself. (The movie is an extended version of a 2009 short, which also starred Slate.) She is sarcastic and foul-mouthed, and fascinated with her body functions—primarily those functions that betray or embarrass her. Imagine the self-abasing neuroses of Woody Allen in Sarah Silverman’s potty mouth and you’re in the neighborhood. Now, make it slightly more nasal in delivery. Does that sound appealing to you, or like sheer torture?
I actually enjoyed her performance. As I did those of Donna’s close friends, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), an outspoken feminist, and Max (Gabe Liedman), a fellow stand-up. The snarky camaraderie of this trio felt real and provided a grounding break from the scenes of Donna performing. But, who knows, you might just hate them all and see them as a whiny entitled narcissist, a man-hating feminazi and an alcoholic Sodomite.
In which case, you are likely to be really fired up by the events that follow Donna’s discovery that she is pregnant after a one-night stand. Obvious Child takes it as given that a woman should have full and uncompromised decision-making ability in regard to her own body. Furthermore, it states that any era or system in which that is not the case is, well, pretty fucked up. But what’s more potentially incendiary is the way in which the movie normalizes—Right to Lifers would say “minimizes,” or even “trivializes,” I suspect—the prospect and process of safe and legal abortion.
I thought Obvious Child was an amusing and slight movie. The slightness is not accidental, though. It’s a filmic way of answering the question “Can women handle responsibility for their bodies?” with a resounding, if not particularly dramatic, “Duh.”