Review by Ken Burke Obvious Child
Part romantic comedy, part argument that for some women (or couples) abortion is a reasonable choice; independent, low-tech film that feels like real people on screen.
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I’ve been wanting to see Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre) for quite some time for two reasons: (1) I’ve seen many supportive reviews for it, more so than many other possibilities in release right now (Rotten Tomatoes 87% positive evaluations, Metacritic 75% average score; more details far below if you wish), and (2) I got the sense that it would provide an alternate viewpoint to the restrictive decisions on birth control and abortion access that have come down from the Supreme Court recently (some corporations may cite religious principles in denying contraceptive care under insurance coverage, no wide buffer zones outside abortion clinics), so, as a man who supports a woman’s right to domain over her own body (from the choice to have sex with someone to the choices involved afterward, whatever they may be) I wanted to see a story where a young woman decides for herself whether pregnancy is viable for her at a specific time in her life and how she goes about the actions that flow from that decision. It also helps that this film is presented in mildly comic terms (not the exaggerated-humor of something like Knocked Up [Judd Apatow, 2007]) so that the topic doesn’t get ponderously-political (there are many options for getting ground into the dust by diatribing-would-be-opinion-makers on both side of the “right to …” issues; it seemed a relief to have a less-strident presentation on how this concept is handled). With all those motivations in place and finally some free time on my schedule for this film, it was off to the theater to see what Obvious Child was actually all about. However, when your accolades include such statements as “The most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made” (from The Dissolve—a film review, news, and commentary website, based in Chicago), you have to wonder what sort of appeal your work is likely to have, given that, despite the intended support, such a description doesn’t likely bode well for boffo-box-office-appeal, a consideration borne out in the facts that after 5 weeks in release Obvious Child has grossed only about $2 million (its income is falling fast, so if anything I say here encourages you to go find it you’d better do so more quickly than I did), with showings at only about 200 theatres (compared to the current hot-ticket-seller, Transformers: Age of Extinction [Michael Bay; review—such as it is at only a generous 2 ½ stars—in our July 2, 2014 posting], which after only 2 weeks has sold well over $175 million in domestic tickets, playing on well over 4,000 screens, proving that if you build it loud enough and long enough, they will come). In Obvious Child everything is centered on Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a roughly 28-year-old-stand-up-comedian-and-book-store-worker at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (a real place in Manhattan’s West Village), whose life—especially from her not-surprising-for-a-twenty-something-me-centric-perspective (I speak from distant-past-experience)—couldn’t get much worse at this point, although it does provide her with material for her act, the kind of comedy that often requires a lot of empathy with the comedian to allow you to see the humor in her situations.
This film is based on Robespierre’s 2009 short of the same title where Slate originated the role of Donna (she also debuted on TV’s SNL for the 2009-10 season, but, despite being a regular viewer of the show, I don’t remember even seeing her on it, despite her accidently dropping an f-bomb her first time out), but there seem to be only 3 other characters in that version with the 2 guys not having the same names as in the current feature so I don’t know what happens there except that the unplanned pregnancy and abortion components appear to be in place. With her expanded approach to the story, Robespierre gives us a sympathetic account of a young woman who, in the course of a few weeks, breaks up with her boyfriend, Ryan (Paul Briganti), who’s made uncomfortable by Donna’s public jokes about their relationship but also takes up with her former best friend, Kate (seen only fleetingly); has drunken sex with a complete stranger, Max (Jake Lacy, shown in the photo above); gets encouragement from her caring-but-scattered Dad, Jacob (Richard Kind)—he says simply that “Living is the best revenge” for being dumped by Ryan—but more life-management-advice than hugs from overly-focused Mom, Nancy (Polly Draper), who notes her concern about Donna’s career-choices (a recent TV ad for a douche product for one), but Nancy and Jacob are separated so she probably micro-managed him as well; learns that she’s pregnant from that one-night-stand; decides to have an abortion (this is when Mom shows a warmer side to Donna, admitting her own abortion while in college); meets up again with Max; finally finds the courage and words to tell him about the pregnancy; then has the procedure with his caring support, followed by his cozy-recovery-period-concern where they commit several hours to watching Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) on TV while we close with the conviction that true love will flow from their chance meeting, given his decency and her need to have something stable in her life for a change to offset the (fictional version of the) bookstore closing down and the chance that with a stable relationship she may run dry for awhile of the neurotic material that has made her a regular in a low-key Brooklyn comedy club. (I thought a bit of how Sally Bowles’ stage act mellowed for awhile in Cabaret [Bob Fosse, 1972] when she first fell in love with Brian [“Maybe This Time”]; of course, her life got complicated again when her Max(imilian), a rich baron, arrived on the scene [“Money, Money”], followed by her pregnancy—possibly from trysts with Max—and her own abortion which didn’t sit so well with Brian [although it’s the best option for Sally, given her concerns about Brian’s bi-sexuality—Brian: “Screw Max!” Sally: “I do.” Brain: “So do I.”—and realization that she has little interest in playing housewife/mother with a Cambridge academic—I can’t blame her for that either] so we’ll just have to hope for a better outcome for Donna.)
As portrayed by Slate, Donna is a complex, interesting character (especially once she gets over her initial obsession with getting Ryan back—she’s at her most pathetic when drunken-dialing him dozens of times, beseeching him with alternating begging for reconsideration, followed by apologies for the previous calls, but it’s all to no avail as he’s clearly moved on while everyone still in Donna’s life has nothing but dismissive words about him—especially Nellie [Gaby Hoffman], Donna’s roommate and true best friend) who comes across not as craftily-written but as sincere, confused, halting at times, then able to spit out hilarious remarks both on stage and in her private life. I don’t know if any of that was improv (if so, it’s very effective in the takes used) or the result of a finely-tuned-ear-for-dialogue on Robespierre’s part, but whatever the genesis of the performances they come across as organic responses from these characters, especially Max’s qualms about his first-time peeing in the street after he and Donna have knocked back more than a few drinks; the “comedy” routine blurted out by Donna after the breakup with Ryan, which is just raw-emotional-confession that doesn’t generate humor at all (unlike her previous routine at the film’s opening which manages to mix in equally-offsetting-personal-stuff about inappropriate farting and the dreary state of her underwear after a day’s mingling with her vagina but still can generate genuine-recognition-laughs from audiences on-screen and watching in the theater) but just puts a wounded, slightly-drunk soul up there in the spotlight (akin to what’s being sung about in R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” [from their 1991 Out of Time album] at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=if-UzXIQ5vw [directed in his usual engagingly-flamboyant-way by Tarsem Singh]); and the brilliant waiting-for-the-pregnancy-test-administered-by-Nellie-to-reveal-its-results-scene, where the real flow of time is taken over by us getting to hear what’s happening in Donna’s frazzled brain as her nervousness generates a radio-station-like running commentary with Donna as the on-air-personality, complete with continuous babble and backing music—we’re never allowed to forget how nerve-wracking these “eternal” seconds are for the woman involved in this life-changing-answer from a little plastic device but it’s also made into the kind of surreal humor that we often experience when looking back later on a traumatic event, finally being able to see the absurd comedy of it all. There’s a corresponding sense of spontaneity in the filmmaking as well, especially with the soundtrack featuring the aural sense of on-location-recording rather than polished-studio-post-dubbing, so that the fidelity and clarity are compromised but with the result of a much greater sense of immediacy of the action, giving Obvious Child an air of documentary, enhanced further by the less-than-fashion-model-looks of most of the principals (except Draper, whose elegant appearance matches her successful Business School-faculty-credentials, and Lacy, playing a handsome frat-boy-type, coincidentally a former MBA student of Momma Stern [although he’s dismissed as an unlikely match by Donna because he’s so Christian he reminds her of a Christmas Tree—but if this type of computer-company-guy with his easy-inebriation-and-sex-habits (although he did try to use a condom on that first night with Donna but neither of them can remember what happened to it) represents Christianity to Donna then at least she doesn’t have to worry about his beliefs leading to her being harassed at her NYC Planned Parenthood clinic, a conscious choice in depiction by Robespierre who wanted to show an alternative to abortion being a movie-plot always fraught with dismissal, danger, and death—see her interview in the second video link far below for details), who also confirm the feeling that if you could see through real apartment walls rather than the movable flats surrounding movie sets these are the people’s lives you’d find on display.
Some might fault Max for not tracking down Donna at her bookstore for a few weeks after their initial meeting but that can be countered with the reality that she was the one who silently slipped out on him the next morning, although I doubt it was from that typical-guy-perspective of “Sure, I’ll call you soon” with no intention of ever doing so. Rather, I think she was just shocked at her own extreme behavior brought on by her desperation over Ryan, her embarrassment at how willing she was to just throw all caution to the wind along with throwing all that alcohol down her gullet, and her sense that this guy wasn’t the proper-immediate-Prince Charming that she’d need to push the memory of Ryan and Kate out of her mind. What comes to my mind about their initial clumsy-morning-after in this more-musically-inspired-than-I-originally-intended-review is that great Tom Paxton tune, “The Last Thing On My Mind” (from his 1964 album Ramblin’ Boy), which you can hear in his1966 performance from the British TV show “Tonight in Person” at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=08lVuhv_Va8 (you can get many other versions of this from such singers as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, The Seekers, Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, etc., but I’ve gone with the composer, because he generates the same sincerity of emotions as does Donna in Obvious Child; you might also recognize this song from the soundtrack of an even more marvelous film about a troubled performer, Inside Llewyn Davis [Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013; review of the film in our December 27, 2013 posting], and if so I’ll reprise that version for you as well at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coX8RsAN3V4). However, now that we’re getting so deeply into music inspired by this film, I need to get to the official Musical Metaphor, Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HKNAhAxMAk, the song that Robespierre acknowledges is the inspiration for her film’s title, while also serving as a catchy soundtrack tune for both Donna and Max’s excellent adventure (the lyrics don’t immediately match much but the rhythm suits their mating actions quite well) and the closing credits. (However, those lyrics rush by in a manner not so easy to catch as with those of R.E.M. and Paxton so you might want to read them to see resonances of what’s being explored/implied in this film, maybe just in the later years of our newly-connected-loving-couple. This song is from Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints 1990 album, using a wide variety of musicians, especially from Africa and Latin America—predominantly Brazil—as a follow-up to the critical and financial success of his 1986 Graceland album made in conjunction with South African accompanists and singers [not only one of the best collections of popular music I’ve ever heard but also a special treat for me because in going to see the album-supportive-concert from Simon and his magnificent collaborators in Berkeley, CA, in February 1987 I met my own everlasting-love, Nina Kindblad, who hasn’t been able to get rid of me since—despite her constant attempts to put arsenic in the anchovies (but she just doesn’t realize what a Texas-raised-stomach is capable of ingesting); we also got to see Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints tour when it came to Oakland, probably in 1991, so I’ve got a further connection with this infectious song and was glad to hear it again a couple of times in Robespierre’s film.)
Obvious Child’s a bit slow and rough around the edges in places (some might argue that's not unlike the situations and characters that it’s about, but I was still a bit distracted at times) as well as maybe too dreamily-romantic in its conclusion, but given all of the pro/anti-Hobby Lobby-based-Supreme Court-rhetoric now swirling around our airwaves it becomes a very appropriate statement of reflection for its times, especially with Nellie’s accidently-prescient-line about how “wrinkled old white men in robes get to legislate our cunts.” If that line is in line with your ideology, I think you’d like Obvious Child quite a bit, either now if you can find it or later on video; if you’re more on board with the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation in condemning its content then there must be better options for your entertainment choices (but how did you ever find your way to my website?—even though I appreciate you reading this far). Obviously, I side with Donna and Max in their choices, as well as with their delightful on-screen-presentations.
Finally, in wrapping up this week, let me offer a few random—but rather obvious, depending on how well you know me—closing comments based on other cinematic happenings in my life lately, which might possibly be interesting to some readers as well. Given all of the constant new first-run-offerings and film-festival-options in my San Francisco area (along with more motivation than ever to watch my beloved Oakland Athletics play baseball—best record in the major leagues as of this writing [even better, they’ve been a good number of days on that plateau despite 29 other teams making their best effort to change that status, plus they’ve just decisively beaten our cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants, the last 2 days; unfortunately, for my ego-driven-bragging-rights, before I could get this posted tonight the Giants won in a sloppy game by the A's but there's still 1 more opportunity for the green and gold tomorrow—7/10/14 Update: Oakland beat San Francisco today!], along with 6 members of the team being selected for the upcoming July 15, 2014 All-Star Game, their best showing since 1975 [3rd base starter Josh Donaldson, pitchers Sean Doolittle and Scott Kazmir, reserves Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris; plus new A’s pitcher Jeff Samardzija—far right in the above photo; if you need help identifying the others please let me know—selected for the National League from the Chicago Cubs but traded to the A’s a few days ago so that he’s technically on the roster but not eligible to compete, although Cespedes and Donaldson will be competing on July 14 as 2 of the 5 American Leaguers in the Home Run Derby, which Yoenis won with ease last year]), my marvelous wife, Nina, and I rarely take the time to watch a cable TV movie nor more than our usual once-a-week-Netflix-DVD, but this past week has
proven to be one of the exceptions. A few nights ago we saw Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012; review in our December 28, 2012 posting) again, while now we’re in the midst of our annual Godfather-trilogy-refresher, complete with me finally making an effort in the kitchen to render my celebrated-version (at least by Nina, but that has a lot to do with her getting some relief from dinner duties) of spaghetti and meat sauce, washed down with a nice Chianti. Briefly (a rarity for me; note it on the calendar), I'll say that all of these viewings have just properly confirmed my initial thoughts: (1) Silver Linings Playbook was among the Top 10 films of its year and deserved its Best Picture nomination, but I confirm with the Academy that Argo (Ben Affleck) was the better choice to win, while non-nominee The Master (Thomas Paul Anderson) is still the real best film of that year, worthy of 1 of my 2 ratings of 4 ½ stars since this blog began (12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, 2013, is the other; I still feel it was the deserving Best Picture winner of its year—hands down—with our review of it in the November 14, 2013 posting); (2) Jennifer Lawrence clearly gives one of the best performances of 2012, rightfully deserving her Best Actress nomination—but I still can’t believe that she won the statue, because as effectively quirky and animated as her acting was in that film even in retrospect it doesn’t surpass Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (Michael Haneke; review in our January 24, 2013 posting) nor even Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow; review in our January 7, 2013 posting); and (3) while there are plenty of folks who argue that Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t on his game as effectively with The Godfather Part III (1990) as he was with the first 2 installments of the Corleone saga (winning Best Picture in 1972 and 1974), I’m still enchanted with all 3 of them, look forward to our yearly revisit, and continue to hold this level of filmmaking up as my 5-star-standard, which is why I’ve yet to see something new since I began my current critic’s career that earns this level of achievement. (The illustrious Roger Ebert agreed with me somewhat in that he cited the 1972 Godfather original as his best of that year [“It is significant that the first shot is inside a dark, shuttered room. The story views the Mafia from the inside. That is its secret, its charm, its spell.”], although, in what would be a tough choice for me, he took Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as his best of 1974—you can see all of his annual bests from Bonnie and Clyde [Arthur Penn, 1967] to Argo if you look at the July 11, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly for Joe McGovern’s “Roger Ebert’s Favorite Movies,” pp. 54-55 [apparently not available as an item on their website but you can get the digital version of the magazine either along with a print subscription or buy it directly online—to learn a bit more about Ebert you can also check out my review of his biography, Life Itself (Steve James) in our July 4, 2014 posting].) I wish all of you well with your own favorite sports teams (World Cup anyone? Argentina or Germany?) and films, but for me this week is gliding along marvelously with the resurgent A’s (7/9/14 results excepted) and the always-appreciated Godfather immersion. (With the best life-advice yet: "Take the cannoli.")
Ciao for now. See you again soon with more invaluable cinematic insights.
If you’d like to know more about Obvious Child here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnpRgNHel-M (10:31 interview with writer-director Gillian Robespierre, with a focus on the abortion content of the film)
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