Nothing obvious

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JUNE 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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4.5 out of 5 Stars

It seems it has become de rigueur to accompany any description or review of Obvious Child, the début film of writer/director Gillian Robespierre, with a pronouncement of the fact that this film is “historic”. Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir spent his entire review of the film discussing its “historic nature.” NPR’s David Edelstein called it “momentous.”

Even Robespierre herself, in interviews, has acknowledged that Obvious Child has done something that almost no American film has ever even attempted — portraying abortion not only as a not particularly tragic event and also doing so in a genre that has caused many jaws to unhinge. It appears Obvious Childis the first “abortion rom-com." Those words don’t exactly roll off the tongue real easily now, do they?

Yet for a film that’s “historic” and “game-changing,” Obvious Childlacks the grandiosity and pomp usually associated with those terms. A more appropriate phrase the film evokes would seem to be minutia.

It’s all relatively small and simple. Donna (Jenny Slate) is a struggling, 20-something standup comedian trying to make it in the grimy comedy clubs of hipster Brooklyn. She works at a small independent bookstore called “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Books” (by far the funniest gag in the film) and dates an unassuming guy. In a 24-hour stretch, she’s dumped by her boyfriend (who doesn’t even have the courtesy to stop checking his phone as he explains that he’s cheated on her with one of her friends) and learns soon thereafter that the bookstore is closing in a few weeks. It seems the market for non-imperialist literature is not as big as one would assume. 

In light of these revelations, Donna hits the bars with comedian friend Joey (Gabe Liebman), meets earnest, nice-enough business student Max (Jake Lacy), engages in a good, old-fashioned, boozy hookup, and leaves the next morning without fanfare. A few weeks later, she discovers she’s pregnant, decides to have an abortion, and becomes closer to the man whose baby she will not be having.

For a film that’s been so associated with abortion, the realization that the film isn’t actually about abortion is quite shocking. The right or wrongs of abortion are never discussed, there’s no mention of the vicious fight over reproductive rights outside the hyper-liberal sphere of New York City, and Donna’s decision to have an abortion is one conducted without much agony.

Rather, Obvious Child concerns itself with the small details of Donna and her world — how her standup works, how her relationships with her friends and parents unfold — generally, the exploration of the life of a regular human being. The abortion is what brings us into this world but not what defines it.

The best example of this framework is in the dialogue, which is realistic in a surprising sense. It’s boring, brilliantly so. They talk in the inane, anti-lyrical patterns that define the speech of the average person. Donna and her circle don’t talk like characters from movieland, whose every phrase is stuffed with the absolutely perfect word for the absolutely perfect moment. Even when they’re being funny, they’re being funny like real people are funny, as in not very.

And I guess, when you look at it like that, for all its smallness, Obvious Child really is something historic, something that must be seen: its admirable refusal to boil down its characters and subject matter to tired cinematic and narrative cliché and instead choose to infuse both with a sense of passionate caring and honesty.

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