Few writers can pull off quirky neurosis in a way that doesn't alienate anyone who doesn't already have their doctor's private number on speed dial. Woody Allen is the obvious choice, Lena Dunham also comes to mind. With OBVIOUS CHILD, Gillian Robespierre deserves to be added to that list. The writer/director made her debut film (based on her short of the same name) starring Jenny Slate about a young woman, aspiring to be a comedian, who finds out that she is pregnant and gets an abortion. For Dunham, this could be the b-plot of a subpar episode of GIRLS; for Allen, this is a surefire recipe for an entertaining disaster, but for Robespierre, it ends up being not just one of the funniest movies of the year but also one of the most touching and heartfelt.
Donna Stern's (Slate) stand-up routines are hilarious, and irreverent and frighteningly honest. I often find myself wondering if there's anything left in comedy, if there are any lines left to cross or if we've essentially become too comfortable with being uncomfortable to find much left to laugh at, but Stern brings new shocks and laughs in equal measure as she pours out the gross details of her personal life onstage usually at the cost of her relationships. She strikes an odd balance in front of people, not unlike a rarely-seen uncle who acts a little too familiar when he comes to visit, and yet she still comes across as vaguely reassuring. Slate is a goddess in this role, her presence so unbearably genuine it almost hurts to remember she is only acting.
In her private life (is anything really private for Donna?), her boyfriend breaks up with her, she gets drunk, meets a stranger with whom she pees in public and then has sex with. A few weeks later, her fears come true.
Typical fare for the modernist woman, and typical fare for Donna, she insists to herself. 1 in 4 women have the "safe kind of HPV" she yells, trying to liberate herself from the pains of her breakup. Many women have had an abortion and now I am one of them, she tells her audience the day before her big event. Behind the scenes she breaks down in front of her best friend, Nellie (Gabby Hoffman - can anyone personify the beauty of the sweaty reality of humanity better than Hoffman?) unable to really deal with the consequences of her actions, afraid that she won't be able to. Every choice is the wrong choice when you're in your 20s with your 30s fast approaching.
It is a credit to Robespierre how OBVIOUS CHILD remains, to pardon the bad wordplay, not obvious. There are no easy moments out here, even when the plot hits familiar ground - the meet-cute, the obligatory friend-proposing-sex-and-getting-rejected scene, the caring father and distant mother - and the movie surprises in its depth again and again, going beyond what would be trite surface drama in the hands of a lesser talent to find some true humanity. Honestly, this script is razor-sharp and the cast couldn't be better.
Handling the topic of abortion with grace, Robespierre makes no condemnation nor affirmation of Donna's choice. Comparisons to JUNO are abound, but damned - JUNO is an entirely different story altogether, focused on Diablo Cody's "cleverness" (don't get me wrong, I love her) and Juno's high-school ditziness, while OBVIOUS CHILD feels like a pulp magazine you could find, half soaked on the floor of a public bathroom but compelling and beautiful and irresistible.
If the nervous laughter-filled meeting between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall is a classic trademark of awkwardness, OBVIOUS CHILD is its glorious descendant. I have never seen another movie with a character making this many jokes and laughing at each and every one of them, but I know, and am one of those people. All actors know how difficult it is to convey genuine laughter on command, and given that, forgetting about her additional emotional intensity and authenticity, Jenny Slate deserves a spot amongst the greats. This is one of the best performances of the year.
Alongside her, Hoffman, David Cross, Jake Lacey, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind and Polly Draper round out the supporting cast with grace and calculated intimacy. These people feel like real friends and family, with the exception of Max the stranger, of course, who is breathlessly out of place and trying to keep up.
OBVIOUS CHILD is the kind of movie every quirky up and coming New Yorker wishes they could make, and the kind of movie that won't get enough attention from the general population. It is bold and audacious in reach, but subtle and refined in grasp, and occupies a rare place in the movie archives where great movies wait to be discovered. When she's not performing, Donna works at a bankrupted independent bookstore, a treasure-trove of old books, forgotten classics, and precious memories. This movie would belong warmly on those shelves.