breakup goggles A nasty split sends Slate into the arms of a stranger in Robespierre's comedy.
Gillian Robespierre has said that she was inspired to write and direct the short film that became Obvious Child by a spate of romantic comedies in which a pregnant heroine decides not to have an abortion. She wanted to go where the makers of Juno and Knocked Up would not, and viewers' reactions to the finished product may depend, to an extent, on how they feel about the breaking of that particular cinematic taboo.
But Obvious Child is not a message movie; expect no preaching about reproductive rights or anything else. True to her claim that she liked those mainstream rom coms, Robespierre has given her comedy the cheerful vulgarity of a Judd Apatow flick and the quirk-camouflaged romanticism of Juno or Waitress.
Because most of that vulgarity emerges from the mouth of the heroine, standup comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), Obvious Child is still a bit of a novelty. Don't see it unless you're comfortable with hearing a woman graphically discuss the state of her panties (hint: not clean) in the first five minutes.
Donna does that as part of her free-form standup act, where she also makes relationship confessions that eventually send her boyfriend into the arms of another woman. Dumped, tanked and about to lose her job at a Brooklyn bookstore, she hooks up with a clean-cut Vermonter named Max (Jake Lacy). (This movie offers yet more proof that, for flatlanders, "WASP-y," "wholesome" and "Vermont" are synonymous.) The encounter Donna can barely remember leaves her in an interesting condition: "I remember seeing the condom," she tells her best friend/Greek chorus (Gaby Hoffmann), "but I can't remember if it was on." That pickle, of course, complicates her tentative efforts to build something real with Max.
Rather than presenting a radically original take on the rom com, Robespierre has realized a thought experiment on film: How would Knocked Up play from the perspective of Seth Rogen's female equivalent? Donna is essentially the same confuzzled, immature twentysomething we've seen on "Girls" and in dozens of recent movie comedies (where the character is more often a man-child). Her character and storyline offer few surprises, but the writing is sharp, and the editing matches it.
Slate, a "Saturday Night Live" alumna and the voice of YouTube sensation Marcel the Shell, plays her role to the hilt, delivering her raunchy riffing in a wispy little voice that's alternately grating and adorable. She's like the live-wire, no-filter friend you can't stop hanging out with, though a whole afternoon with her makes you climb the walls.
Luckily, Obvious Child is less than 90 minutes long, and a decent number of those minutes are funny or touching. The movie will probably make Slate a star. I didn't find it as fresh as the similar female-written indie comedies For a Good Time, Call... and In a World..., but it's telling that we can still count points of comparison on one hand.
Recent years have seen the eclipse of those pastel-cardigan rom coms where the heroine's biggest ambition is the perfect wedding and her biggest vice is being uptight. But Hollywood doesn't seem entirely sure how to combine the traditional wish-fulfillment aspects of the rom with a franker, less genteel kind of com. Movies like this one are working out that problem.
Will audiences embrace a heroine who decides she likes a guy because he farts in front of her? One who's unabashedly more than a little self-centered? While the abortion aspect of Obvious Child is getting the press, that may be less daring in itself than Donna's tendency to own her choices — all of them — without a single dithering apology.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.