Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate and written (story by Robespierre and others) and directed by Gillian Robespierre screened to a packed audience at the Athena Film Festival. The feature, Robespierre’s first, is billed as a “rom-com” to safely align it with a familiar genre. However, the film is not easily categorized because it is layered and can be appreciated on many different levels. It is a realistic comedy, a thematically message laden film about self-determination, a millennial melt-down about flagging ambition, failed relationships, and pre-thirty angst, a coming of age chick flick. It is also a female rite of passage film, you know the one which subversively implies, “Ladies, we’ve all been there, now own up to it!” And even these handles don’t begin to do the film justice or cover its intricate and delicately ironic depth so cleverly parlayed by Robespierre in the writing and pointed, cinematic execution.
Donna Stern (an engaging, complex and spot-on portrayal by Slate), is a stand-up comedienne in a Brooklyn dive who is trying to live the dream but is barely making the rent in an apartment she shares with her friend Nellie (the stolid, mothering Gaby Hoffmann). Donna careens between her nighttime escapades delivering her routines to a small devoted audience, then switches back to her undemanding day job at a struggling with capitalism bookstore, Unoppressive Non-Imperialst Books. Somewhere sandwiched between these venues are meet-ups with her boyfriend. Most probably, Donna receives handouts from her nurturing and always ready to counsel and cajole parents Jacob and Nancy Stern (fine supporting performances by Richard Kind and Polly Draper).
Donna’s slap dash, seat of the pants routines are appreciated by her audience because they identify; her jokes are culled and pick-pocketed from her life, and Robespierre shows a freshness having crafted raucous and nitty-gritty female humor as Donna rattles off about the tell-tale, cheese-like discharges/stains on her underwear and other dubiously hysterical takes on the grossness of womanhood. Robespierre via Donna shares those “humiliating” women experiences that no “ladies” care to talk about but that beg to be leveled point-blank at a film audience for their candidness of shared experience. Men will laugh, too, especially if they have female partners or are human beings dealing with life’s graces like peeing and farting, additional subjects which Robespierre covers through her always surprising characterization of Donna.
From the film’s outset, we divine that Donna’s comic routines are showy brilliant moments interspersed with flame-outs which are exceedingly funny if you are not the kindling set alight by the torch. Turns out her boyfriend is the subject for burning as her routine is in full swing when the film begins. Donna’s passive-aggressive relationship with him is carted out for the audience who has a blast with it, but her boyfriend is freaked out and tells her it is the end. He is sick and tired of being grist for her riffs. As he breaks up with her, Donna sounds the deep waters of her sorrow. This is a superb twist in Robespierre’s character development of Donna, believably portrayed by Slate because initially we were convinced that this comic was achieving health through humor. It is the opposite.
We learn throughout the film that, in fact, Donna’s humor is the tip of the iceberg to what is underneath, an ironic and shadowy muddle. Robespierre cleverly shows that at its essence, Donna’s comic art functions as deniability. As a result she is unable to confront her feelings of futility and fear in a struggle which appears to be going toward a dead end. She, like many her age, are in a society that is making it increasingly difficult for them to decide who they are, what their purpose is, and what they stand for. But until they do, they will continue to be unfulfilled. Donna’s stand-up has been a venue where she can subvert the pain, regret, and failures that we can only imagine have happened to her thus far. Using her boyfriend as a joke instead of confronting him with the truth is an example of how she has bundled her suffering into a cocoon and ignored its presence. But it is still there and it is coming to remind her of its presence as much as she pushes it away. She is self-absorbed but not self-aware. In itself, this blindness would supply jokes for the next six months, except Donna can’t get out of herself or her emotions to catch the light-footed muse of humor and discover what is going on inside.
One night post-break up and fueled on alcohol, Donna attempts to deliver her monologue and entertain the tiny crowd. But her stream-of-consciousness train ride becomes so embittered and acrid with truth and self-demolition that her audience senses catastrophe. Embarrassed for her, they find nothing funny and there is silence. Not only has she lost her boyfriend and made a mess running from herself; now, it appears that she is running from her greatest defense, her humor. In the following days, she is told her erstwhile job at the bookstore will be coming to an end because of extenuating circumstances; the landlords are evicting them, most probably because the site will be developed or the rent will be elevated to excruciating heights. Her parents and Nellie give her support, love, and advice, and Nellie encourages her about her comedy act, telling her that regardless, the audience loves her because she is unapologetically herself, even though the mean truth sometimes isn’t funny.
Robespierre humorously tops her own storyline with this plot point: when it can’t get any worse, it becomes catastrophic. Another night after her comedy set is over, Donna goes to a club to further escape her “going nowhere existence” and rocks into senselessness while partying with an adorable guy. Very drunk both spend a rollicking night together. Some weeks later Donna is throwing up in the morning. Nellie humorously says after they both realize she is pregnant, “You played Russian Roulette with your vagina!” The comment hits its target. Donna realizes she cannot have the child and decides to have an abortion on February 14th.
How Robespierre writes this in and how she has Donna deal with it is nothing short of breathtaking. Part of this segment shows Donna in a tearful and poignant discussion with her mother, who contrary to Donna’s assumption, is not only supportive, but illuminating. Nancy Stern counsels her daughter that “in her time,” she had an abortion illegally and she is lucky to be alive. Donna’s mom is understanding and sympathetic as she holds the door open for Donna on this next step into adulthood. She assures her that she will be able to get through it, and in every stage of life, there is always something to overcome. The scene between Slate and Draper is exceptional.
During this segment, Donna keeps on bumping into Max (Jake Lacy is a believable combination of boy next door, though there is no next door, and a reasonable guy), the adorable man she met and whose child she is aborting. Their few encounters appear somewhat staged by Robespierre to make a point. However, it is apparent that Max, who is the antithesis of Donna and very near to being an athletic business geek, enjoys her quirky company and droll humor enough to ask her out. How Robespierre effects their potential for a relationship, and handles the pregnancy and possible abortion is well thought out and realistic based upon who she has set up these characters to be.
It is also apparent from Donna’s comedy routine that the humor muse has returned, and she now has begun to open her eyes to gain wisdom about herself. She realizes that she was in a panic run avoiding herself, though it appeared that she was totally self-involved. We understand that Donna is taking becoming in touch with her emotions and inner truth enough to begin to unbind the cocoon. Robespierre intimates that eventually Donna will solidfy who she is and what she wants. And there is forgiveness; she is OK. A panic race away from confronting oneself is all a part of life’s path for Donna. How Max quietly helps her through this revelation is endearing.
The beauty of Robespierre’s film lies not only with the acting (the ensemble is great), but with her likeable and sharply written characterization of Donna whose dialogue is effervescent yet darkly ironic. Robespierre has finely tuned and edited the film, pairing it down to appropriate the meat of the finest of the performances, slyly engaging us as we watch what appears to be the actors’ spontaneity. If the scene where Max and Donna party appears to be a bit long and repetitive, it is forgotten as we enjoy the music. For a debut film, Robespierre has made a funny, edgy, and classic women friendly film that even men will like. Bravo.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0076RV6I0]