Obvious Child is 5% groundbreaking, 95% uninspired formula

June 24, 2014


Obvious ChildGillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child does one unique thing very well: It tells a story about abortion without any emotional trauma or hysterical moral wailing.

Obvious Child is the story of Donna (Jenny Slate), who gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand and, given her complete lack of financial or emotional stability, decides to have an abortion. Predictable hijinks ensue, but more interestingly, women talk about their experiences with abortions, and none of them degenerate into tearful monologues about terrifying clinics or lifelong regret.

(Needless to say, I’m sure many women have awful experiences and regrets, but this is not the place to look for some sort of universal consensus on abortion. Obvious Child is not even remotely a political film, and has no interest in changing whatever you think about abortion.)

But if Obvious Child is original in its approach to the subject matter, it’s utterly pedestrian in its execution and everything that’s not explicitly abortion-related. It’s a paint-by-numbers indie rom-com, with a young aspiring artistic protagonist who’s struggling to get her life together. Take an episode of Girls and make it less self-aware and challenging, or take Frances Ha and remove its sympathetic protagonist, mix in equal parts Judd Apatow and every other independent romantic comedy of the past 5 years, and you get something like Obvious Child.  (I realize you could construe that different ways, so let me clarify: I admire Lena Dunham’s writing, if not her performance, on Girls, and Frances Ha is one of my favourite movies of the past few years.)

Some of this is entirely subjective: Most of the time I found Jenny Slate to be annoying, and only rarely funny – not a great starting point if your main character is meant to be a comedian. (Amusingly, I found the scene where she gets drunk and bombs her standup act much funnier than her allegedly triumphant return to the stage at the end of the film.)

But there’s not much to Donna’s character beneath Slate’s performance: She’s immature, she’s poor, she’s a moderately talented but hardly successful comedian… and that’s about it. Most of her motivations are vague or non-existent: Her mother urges her to get her life together and encourages her to find a better job, but nothing happens. She’s passionate about doing standup, but doesn’t seem to do much more than show up to the same club every few nights and wing it. She’s upset about being dumped at the beginning of the film, but her ex-boyfriend is such a dick that it’s unclear why she should care.

As her one-night-stand, Jake Lacy is whatever you’d call the opposite of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Button-down, straight-laced, organized, polite, thoughtful, unambiguously good. Even Donna’s mother approves of him! He’s as boring and polite as Donna is quirky and crass, and there’s no conflict in their relationship beyond “Will he be able to accept Donna’s quirky and socially awkward behaviour?”  Spoiler: Duh.

Slate is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, but none of them offer anything original: Richard Kind plays her supportive, artistic father, and Polly Draper is her judgmental, business school professor mother. David Cross shows up as a sleazy fellow standup in a role that feels like it should be more substantial. Gaby Hoffman plays Donna’s supportive best friend & roommate. They’re all characters you’ve seen before, and all of them do exactly what you expect that sort of character to do. Several times, I found myself wishing that Slate and Gaby Hoffman had swapped roles; Hoffman brings much more intensity and depth to her brief performance than Slate does to the entire film.

Obvious Child suffers from an almost total lack of conflict or character development: aside from the initial breakup scene, everyone loves Donna. She has some tension with her practical & organized mother, but much of that is superficial & cliché; her mother is kind and supportive when it really counts. The problem of paying for her abortion is briefly raised, but never comes up again. She loses her job and maybe looks into some temp work, but that plot thread also disappears. Donna never has any second thoughts, doubts, or concerns about her abortion. Everyone is entirely supportive of her completely reasonable decision. There’s at least one incredibly awkward plot contrivance that brings Donna and Max together. Donna’s big moment comes when she realizes she should probably try to be slightly less self destructive.

While Robespierre’s normalization of abortion is refreshing, she’s made it too normal to work as dramatic material. That abortion is a common medical procedure experienced by many women is a unique and valuable point, but “No Big Deal” isn’t a very effective framework for a movie. Obvious Child sets out an obvious conclusion for its protagonist, and then shuffles towards it without much creativity or depth. It never offers strong enough performances or clever enough writing to be anything more than an interesting concept.