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Obvious Child

(2014) ** 1/2 R
84 min. A24 Films. Director: Gillian Robespierre. Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, David Cross.

/content/films/4690/1.jpgAside from every indie rom-com filmmaker's well-judged affinity for Paul Simon, the title of Obvious Child obviously refers to its heroine, another protagonist suffering from severely arrested development. What makes Obvious Child different is that this protagonist is a woman saddled with an unwanted pregnancy: yep, another "obvious child."

When in trouble, wine-swilling New York stand-up comic Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) habitually crawls into the arms of her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann, always welcome) and her gay friend and colleague Joey (Gabe Liedman), or back into the cradle of her warmly funny and supportive dad (Richard Kind) or her micro-managing but loving mother (Polly Draper). So when a nice-but-square one-night stand (Jake Lacy's Max) unwittingly knocks Donna up, her trips around her circuit of support intensify. But for all the advice in the world, this is a problem only a woman, herself, can solve, which forces Donna kicking and screaming into a stronger sense of self.

That's all well and good, and Obvious Child deserves credit for being just what it is: an urban romantic comedy that deals matter-of-factly with the truthful situations of pregnancy and abortion (as opposed the usual contrived crises that bear no resemblance to reality). And it's terrific to see Slate own a film in the starring role (she has most recently acquitted herself well as the horrific Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation). But Obvious Child is one of those pictures that's just good enough that you dearly wish it were better. Director Gillian Robespierre announces her lack of preciousness or pretension by laying fart sounds under her credit, but too often in the film that follows she resorts to fart jokes and diaper jokes. In one case, Robespierre gives up on writing a snappy ending to a scene, instead just having a character step in a pile of dog doo to end a conversation. Hilarity does not ensue.

Obvious Child has a pleasantly prevailing wryness (Donna must schedule her abortion for Valentine's Day), but few quality jokes (least of all in Donna's stand-up comedy, which at its best feels like a weak-tea knockoff of Sarah Silverman). The picture (based on a short directed by Robespierre and starring Slate) can also be eye-rollingly obvious, as in the packing scene in which Donna chooses to literally put herself in a box. Of course, by daring to tackle the culturally radioactive issue of abortion, Obvious Child also acquiesces that it's not going to please everyone, and that's okay. Donna's choices will naturally be divisive, both on the question of reproductive choice and how she fumbles her emotional responses to her situations and her lingering relationship with the sweetly clueless father.

The biggest potential problem for audiences may not so much be the narcissistic protagonist who at times displays hateful behavior (most notably passive-aggressive public use of her stand-up to hide behind when delivering difficult personal news) as the film’s implicit endorsement of that behavior as “girls will be girls” excusable without so much as an apology to those Donna childishly and selfishly exploits or hurts. Or maybe that's just me. At any rate, Robespierre has conceived something you don't see every day: a feminist rom-com that unapologetically allows its flawed protagonist to let it all hang out. As such, Obvious Child makes a solid choice.

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