The first thing to notice about first-time writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” is how unassumingly brave and refreshing it is. In the same vein as Lake Bell’s “In A World…” last year, it’s a feminist tale from a new female voice in filmmaking. That word has been getting tossed around a lot lately — feminist — and what it means to be a feminist and how many in the public sphere are shying away from identifying themselves as such at the expense of making themselves sound ignorant. Take a look at the premise of Robespierre’s very smart feature, which she adapted from her 2009 short of the same name. This is what we’re talking about when it comes to feminism. Here’s a woman, Donna (Jenny Slate), making an important decision without letting anyone, notably any man, manipulate her choices. The film is not about following the suspense of whether or not she’s going to get the abortion. She gets it because she knows it’s what she has to do. The trajectory of the storyline is actually discovering whether or not she’ll even involve the guy, Max (Jack Lacy), and watching her deal with a difficult choice in her own unique way.
All of this serious subject matter gets wrapped into a romantic comedy that is crowd-pleasing and sweet but also raunchy with its fair share of toilet humor and vagina jokes. It’s like an inverse “Knocked Up” from the woman’s perspective — and way more real. You may have seen Jenny Slate on TV in “Kroll Show” or “Parks and Recreation” but never in a big-screen role like this. She nails it, sticking the landing and proving herself a promising leading lady.
The rest of the cast is nicely rounded out with quirky, lived-in characters. Richard Kind and Polly Draper play Donna’s polar-opposite parents; Gabe Liedman plays her snarky gay BFF; and the now ever-present Gaby Hoffmann (of “Girls” and “Transparent”) plays that friend who’s the guiding light, the steady hand in any moment of crisis. Jack Lacy as Donna’s love interest is arguably the cast’s weakest link but only a minor quibble. They share an instance of great chemistry in one of the most joyous scenes, a playful strip tease set to Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child,” where the film gets its title.
Here’s a humble comedy that is both funny and poignant without trying too hard to be either. This facade of effortlessness comes from Robespierre’s dedication to being completely honest. Slate’s scenes of performing stand-up convey the desire for full disclosure on all things personal and intimate. She is the heart and center of “Obvious Child,” which manages to say a whole lot while never stepping on a soapbox and always being truthful to life.