"Obvious Child" Gets By On Robust Lead Performance

Some of the best films in history have made hay by aggressively zigzagging across genre lines, but without a road map it’s often an uphill battle. Such is the case with writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s debut, “Obvious Child,” the zenith of uncharted cinematic territory – a romantic comedy-drama centered on the imminent termination of an unplanned pregnancy. Politics aside – the film is, naturally, pro-choice – Robespierre has delivered an audacious work that unsurprisingly falters as often as it flies. It’s a frequently uneasy potluck of mixed emotional terrain, hit-and-miss jokes, and one transcendent performance that impressively, if messily, ties it all together.

Jenny Slate, best known for stints on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks And Recreation,” is nothing short of triumphant as Donna Stern, an infantile twenty-something who finds herself thoroughly broken up over a recent break up. As a bookstore employee that moonlights as a stand-up comic, her stage performances afford her a kind of communal therapy. She routinely works through her issues in the spotlight, often in graphic, R-rated detail, but it’s quickly apparent that it won’t be enough to get her through her current heartbreak.

At the behest of her two best friends (Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman) Donna begins to move on – physically, at least – with a predictably fuzzy romp of a one-night stand. But what might have been a suitable sexual palate cleanser gets complicated in a hurry. Three weeks later, our childish lead is with child – hence the title’s double meaning – and Max (Jake Lacy, “The Office”), the fling’s other half, unexpectedly reappears in Donna’s life. And, as it turns out, he’s even sweeter than previously thought, coming off as a puree of nice guy stereotypes.

The remainder of film centers on Donna’s prenatal predicament, ultimately making the deceptively simple point that being pro-choice isn’t the same thing as being pro-abortion. No one, generally speaking, seeks out the experience as something enlightening, fulfilling, or empowering. As depicted here, it’s a painful, emotionally tumultuous affair that its staunchest advocates likely wouldn’t wish on their foes. Slate traverses the weightiest corners of the screenplay perfectly, and the film is unexpectedly at its best when it’s at its most serious.

But it is, ironically, comedically-challenged. Robespierre’s dialogue is rarely as funny as it thinks it is, with the majority of big laughs coming courtesy of Jenny Slate’s offhand, obviously improvised turns of phrase. Donna’s stand-up act is ribald but stale, serving little purpose outside of articulating the character’s inner monologue. Even some of the reaction shots come off as canned, depicting the kind of laughter that was mostly absent from the real-world audience at this particular showing.

Even more problematic is the lack of chemistry between leads. It’s understood that Max’s blandness is a vital part of the character, but that doesn’t make him any less uninteresting. Lacy is a likable actor, but here he’s pared down to the most basic parts of his personality, ostensibly as an answer to the narrative’s inherent rockiness. And without any spark between its leads, the film is even more prone to losing its audience – even the choir members to which it’s preaching.

The film’s drive is worthy, but the execution isn’t up to task – although it wouldn’t be a stretch to blame the difficulty of the material. Nevertheless, Slate saves the whole endeavor from being the kind of experimental write-off that’s forgotten as quickly as its end titles fade from the screen. She burns brighter here than any other actor or actress in the first half of 2014, ensuring that “Obvious Child” will be remembered, if nothing else as a coming-out party for its lead actress.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 6, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Screenwriter: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind
MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexual content)