Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: "Obvious Child"

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Runtime: 83 minutes

Despite an ending that involves two young singles getting together on Valentine's Day, Obvious Child is as far from the average rom-com as one can get. In fact, the "romantic" part of this would-be romantic comedy is hardly a factor. And this, among many other reasons, is part of what makes writer/director Gillian Robespierre's feature debut such a winning success. Unlike so many films and TV shows that strain to depict the struggles of "modern" romance, Obvious Child captures modernity with a laid-back, gently subversive ease, all while being consistently hilarious. 

Adapted from Robespierre's short film of the same title, Obvious Child kicks off with aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) getting hit with a truckload of bad news. Her boyfriend leaves her for a close friend, and the book store she works at is going out of business in a matter of weeks. Donna's puppet-designing father Jacob (Richard Kind) tells her that creativity can flourish under dismal circumstances. Sadly, that doesn't appear to be true for Donna. Things only get messier when a one night stand with a kind, straight-laced stranger named Max (Jake Lacy) results in a pregnancy. 

Pregnancy has played a role in any number of romantic comedies in recent years (2007 alone had: Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno), but those all led to one safe destination: carrying it to term. Obvious Child, however, happily marches to the beat of its own low-budget drum. The tension doesn't revolve around whether or not Donna will get an abortion, but rather how said procedure will impact her relationships with everyone around her. 

This places Donna so completely in the spotlight that she's in every scene of the film. That level of pressure, even for a project of such modest means, is a lot to place on any actor. Yet Robespierre has found an inspired collaborator in Slate, who turns in the sort of effortless comedic leading performance that grabs your attention from the get go. Better yet, Robespierre's screenplay has made Donna much more than a discombobulated mouthpiece to spit out funny lines. Though Slate has played her share of broad supporting characters, Donna feels like a beautifully rounded-out creation. Slate's delivery and timing are excellent, but her handling of the film's vulnerable moments is equally convincing. 

The sharp attention to Donna, thankfully, proves to be more than enough to balance the occasionally one-note supporting players. Robespierre and her casting director have assembled a great ensemble, and every major part is handled well. Some may get fewer dimensions to work with (Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as her close friends), but they are wisely incorporated to inform Donna's emotional journey. The most effective is easily Donna's touch-and-go relationship with her mother (Polly Draper), which starts out uncomfortably, yet builds to the film's most touching scene. 

What has stuck me since seeing Obvious Child, aside from its many funny lines, it just how well Robespierre captures so many bits and pieces of life's messiness without getting lost. At barely 83 minutes, the film is full of fast and funny forward momentum, even in the most awkward scenes. Robespierre's storytelling is light on its feet, yet not without smart attention to detail and genuine emotion. Throw in the casual feminist bent it lends the typical rom-com, and you have one of the breeziest, yet also most honest comedies in quite a while. Obvious Child doesn't make you think that "they don't make 'em like this anymore." Instead, you'll wonder why they haven't been making so many more like Obvious Child all along. 

Grade: B+

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