Obvious Child, the debut feature from Brooklyn-based filmmaker Gillian Robespierre, is a cinematic breath of fresh air. At a moment when both Hollywood studios and many independent filmmakers are busy rehashing the same tired clichés, Robespierre has gifted filmgoers with a rare work of wit and insight rooted in the messy challenges of real life.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a 20-something comedian living with a roommate in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Donna can pay her rent (barely) but not her school loans, with a job at actual NYC fixture Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books. Donna’s stand-up routine is deeply autobiographical. She conceals nothing from her audience, no matter how personal, embarrassing or explicit.
The discovery that her boyfriend has been sleeping with one of her friends triggers a brief downward spiral culminating in a night of drinking, farting and casual sex with Max (Jake Lacy), a straight-laced grad student. A few weeks later, Donna discovers she is pregnant. Although she quickly chooses to have an abortion, personal, family and financial complications ensue in the weeks before the procedure, especially when Max suddenly reappears and wants to get to know her better.
Obvious Child delightfully functions on several different levels. First of all, it is a winning portrait of a young woman stumbling her way through the maze of love, sex, friendship and work that leads to adulthood. Robespierre draws hysterical laughter from Donna’s struggles, which will be instantly recognizable to almost anyone who is in his or her 20s or has already lived through that tumultuous decade. The film’s authenticity is revealed in its refreshingly straightforward approach to the issue of abortion, which is portrayed as neither easy, nor highly tragic, but rather as one of the important choices that will ultimately shape the woman Donna is becoming.
Robespierre also offers an affectionate but pointed satire of the insular absurdities and generous pleasures of Brooklyn’s hipster subculture. However, perhaps the most subversive twist thrown into the mix is that Obvious Child is a romantic comedy, one of the best in recent years. While Donna and Max’s relationship follows the classic rom-com arc, Robespierre makes that just one component of the film’s rich mosaic.
Robespierre has assembled an excellent cast, one that is far superior to those usually found in a debut feature. Although Obvious Child features typically excellent supporting work from veteran character actors as Donna’s parents, Richard Kind (A Serious Man, Spin City) and Polly Draper (Side Effects, Thirtysomething), as well as indie favorites Gaby Hoffman (Girls, Veronica Mars, Crystal Fairy), David Cross (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Gabe Liedman (Inside Amy Schumer), the film’s breakthrough performance is the irresistibly funny Jenny Slate as Donna. Slate, who many will recognize from her recurring role on Parks and Recreation, as well as her voiceover work in Bob’s Burgers and The Lorax, perfectly embodies the film’s lovely blend of gentle and profane humor.