This week's top pick is an unlikely comedy about a very serious topic. That topic is abortion and it's what Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) wants in "Obvious Child", the feature debut of Gillian Robespierre. Well-received at Sundance, this wonderful little film is a fine example of how to approach controversial topics with humour.
The film's protagonist is a young 20-something who works as a stand-up comedian at small bar in New York City. When we meet her, she's about to face crushing news as her boyfriend dumps her to be with another woman. Devastated by the news, she wallows in self-pity which affects her life and her performances on stage. Things take a turn for the better however, when she meets a handsome man after an especially embarrassing comedy routine. Charmed by this eligible bachelor, she ends up going home with him for a one-night stand. During all the fun times however, they forget to use a condom, leading to the crisis that forms the core of the story. Determined to have an abortion, Donna soon finds that the prospect brings up various issues including her strained relationship with her mom, her self-confidence and her future.
Donna is effectively having a minor existential crisis, but the film isn't so concerned with its gloomy ramifications. Robespierre's script is as witty as Donna herself, favouring light-hearted silliness over painful self-reflection (though it does engage with deeper issues when necessary). It's a combination of Annie's self-deprecation ("Bridesmaids"), Frances' quirky aimlessness ("Frances Ha") and Hannah's crude honesty (HBO's "Girls) that works surprisingly well. If you're a fan of any of those films/series then you'll likely find some appeal in this.
As with those female-centric comedies, Slate's breakthrough performance seems to claim as much authorship of the material as the writer/director. Audiences may remember her from her minor supporting roles on TV but this is the first time we really get to see what she can do. This freewheeling script proves to be the perfect fit for her as she nails the role. She's hilarious and very endearing.
There's no doubt that Slate's performance is what makes this film so special. There's one scene in particular that shows her deft understanding of the material, where her character uses a stand-up routine as both personal confession and social commentary on the unfair stigma placed on women who have abortions. It's hard to think of many actresses who would be able to pull off the comic timing and engaging candor it requires.
Familiar comedy tropes may form the basic framework of "Obvious Child", but it's a film that succeeds on its own terms. It's an entertaining, funny acting showcase that just happens to have serious issues on its mind. I'm sure you'll be craving more Jenny Slate after watching it.