Writer-director Gillian Robespierre's "Obvious Child" arrives with the buzz of Sundance behind it, and the unfortunate buzz of being billed as the first "abortion comedy." Those words are a bit misleading. "Obvious Child" is definitely a comedy, and it also deals with abortion. But the approach is not glib or casual. It's a film that is really about the behavior of its main characters, the rhythms of conversations, the unexpected moments that surprise, and the sudden flashes of feeling that act as an ambush. It's a whirlwind. It touches on themes of arrested development, needing to grow up and to accept responsibility for who you are (both onstage and off, the film being about a standup comedian who uses her own life story in her act), but "Obvious Child" is not ponderous with these themes.
"Obvious Child" starts in a small stand-up club in Brooklyn, the kind of place with seven or eight tables and a unisex bathroom covered in graffiti. The comics who show up all have bigger dreams, they have agents, they just sold a pilot. The film opens with Donna (Jenny Slate) on-stage, in the midst of doing a set, one that is immediately disarming, honest and legitimately funny. It feels unscripted. It's a bit of a mess. Her delivery is spontaneous, even down to moments where she loses track of what she is saying and has to find her way back to the joke. She gets an enthusiastic response from the audience. But her boyfriend, smoldering in the back, feels differently about being used as a prop in her comedy, and breaks up with her.
The breakup scene is when I first sensed that "Obvious Child" was working on a unique wavelength. She is truly crushed at the turn of events. Donna is not just a wise-cracking broad, using her comedy to keep people at bay, or joke her way out of living a serious life (although that is part of it). Comedy is not pathologized here, although the impulse to get up and talk about your life in front of others is examined in interesting ways. Donna is vulnerable and that vulnerability is part of her act.
The concept of using one's life as fodder for your art is an underlying motif of "Obvious Child," and it comes back again and again, seen through different angles of the prism. Sometimes Donna hits it out of the park. Other times, like when she goes on-stage wasted, in the wake of the breakup, and rambles on incessantly to an increasingly embarrassed audience, she falls flat on her face. Donna is almost thirty, and still babied by her parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), she is a clerk in a bookstore called "Unoppressive Non-Imperialst Books," and lives with her roommate Nellie (an excellent Gaby Hoffman). One drunken night at the club, she goes home with a guy named Max (Jake Lacy), who is not a comedian, is in business school, and seems taken with Donna's aggressive brand of conversation (despite the fact that he also has a hard time keeping up with it). They cavort around. They laugh. They have sex. It's all a part of her breakup tailspin.