I love Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), the protagonist of Obvious Child, the new indie dramedy from co-writer and director Gillian Robespierre (working from her 2009 short of the same name), because Donna is wickedly smart and engaging, a cute Jewish woman we rarely get to see in mainstream romantic comedies. She’s not put together; in fact, Donna is a hot mess. She’s a stand-up comedienne who talks about the routine bump and grind of her sex life, speaks in the voice of her tightly clenched butthole and gets dumped in the grimy unisex bathroom of the comedy club after her set (by a dude who is cheating on her with a friend).
What I love about Donna is how she lives her life like every aspect of it is part of a walking, talking stand-up act that never ends. She is constantly performing, but she is not merely a social media whore pimping snippets for tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram photos or YouTube clips. Obvious Child could be an indie version of The Truman Show, without Ed Harris manipulating everything from above. That’s a weird comparison, especially because Obvious Child couldn’t be more divergent, in premise, from The Truman Show. Truth be told, Obvious Child will remind audiences of a cross between Knocked Up and Juno, with a dash of the brilliant first half of Funny People, for people who appreciate comedy minus the laugh tracks.
There’s a thread here for observant readers and moviegoers that speaks directly to why I love Donna so much (in case you haven’t gotten the hint that I love Donna Stern). Donna is Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) from Knocked Up and Ira Wright (Rogen again) from Funny People, and Andrew Brewster (you guessed it, Rogen once more) from The Guilt Trip and maybe even a few other Rogen types, minus the weed in some cases or decidedly less alien (Paul) or super-heroic (The Green Hornet). It’s better to stick with the initial trio of Rogen characters I referenced because Donna is a woman, frozen in a state of arrested development we’ve come to expect and appreciate in comic male leads.
She mines largely unexplored territory. We tend to assume that young women somehow reach adulthood fully formed and aware of their responsibilities. But Donna presents the overgrown bushy path that never gets tended to. Thanks to Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham, we have Girls, but even from the disastrous start of Obvious Child, Donna is a woman and a damned funny one at that.
She volleys back and forth between divorced parents — Jacob (Richard Kind), a shaggy puppet maker/performer, and Nancy (Polly Draper), a dedicated academic — and her two best friends — her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and Joey (Gabe Liedman), the host of the stand-up showcase at the Brooklyn club — but is never merely at the mercy of forces or people around her. So, it is no surprise when she meets Max (Jake Lacy), a too-cute WASP happily slumming in hipsterland, and immediately falls for him. He’s everything a recently dumped woman would want. He’s available and obviously smitten with her.
When their one-night stand results in an unwanted pregnancy, Donna makes up her own mind and prepares to handle the situation, but seemingly every time she turns around, Max is there — not in a stalker-ish way, though. Max continues to pop up because despite the circumstances, which he remains in the dark about, he genuinely likes Donna and he’s not quite as together as he would like to be either.
The selling point for Obvious Child is its stark departure from the typical rom-com mode, its button-pushing topicality. It’s an abortion love story (ha, top that!). I wouldn’t exactly disagree with such statements or hype, but to focus on those facets would mean missing the more salient point about who Donna Stern is, and why the movies need more Donna Stern types. Donna’s not sharing the stage as part of some vaguely romantic duo or sisterhood of traveling fashion accessories. Donna is front and center, living her life as best she can, living out loud without a censor, which means that sometimes she strays into uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory, but I love her so much more than any of those Rogen types.
Robespierre and Slate have taken a step that I’m not sure I want to define as being bold, even though it might warrant such consideration. Obvious Child dares to tell a truth about what it means to be a woman today and I hope their example pushes filmmakers to give us more diversity of perspectives. Opens Friday (R) Grade: B+
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