Fresh material is the key to ennobled comedy. And Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is so fresh that the laughter was, indeed, good medicine.
Kristen Wiig, Anna Faris, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph—the effortlessly funny Comedy Queens of modern film and television—must now induct a new member into their ranks: 32-year-old Jenny Slate, whose performance was thigh-slappingly hilarious. Slate plays Donna, the titular obvious child and the honest, often indiscreet comedian. Her awkwardness, her spontaneity, her charm, the je ne sais quoi persona (a defining trait in all those aforementioned Queens), all contributed to the spasmodic, roaring laughter that swept through Max Palevsky Cinema during an advance screening of the film.
But no comedy, whether it has an outstanding leading lady or not, can succeed without the genius of the film’s screenplay. Virtuoso screenwriter and director Gillian Robespierre first released this refreshing comedy as a short film back in 2009 on the video-sharing website Vimeo. The diametric criticism the short received was enough to pique the viewing public’s interest, which in turn subjected the proto-film to ever greater levels of scrutiny. Unlike happily-ever-after films with similar themes, such as Katherine Heigl’s Knocked Up (2007), Ellen Page’s Juno (2007), or Vanessa Hudgens’s most recent attempt at serious acting, Gimme Shelter (2013), Obvious Child deviates from sappy, candy-coated endings. As film critic Tiffany Vazquez wrote, Obvious Child represents a “brave new frontier” on all fronts—it takes great risks not only in its less-than-fairy-tale ending but in its daringly dark themes as well.
The ending can best be described as bittersweet: It doesn’t feel totally satisfying, but has enough clarity to make its point. “We were frustrated by the limited representations of young women onscreen and their experience with unplanned pregnancy,” said Robespierre of the film. “We were waiting to see a film in which a woman makes a different choice—and it doesn’t define her life. But we weren’t sure how long that wait was going to be. So we decided to make the film ourselves.” The film is essentially feminist in its concerns, but not excessively political. It’s about the reality of things: how an accidental pregnancy should be regarded as merely an accident, and not as prolonged suffering or a burden. It’s pro-choice, especially with regards to youth pregnancy, although the film makes the point that prevention is an easier course. For the film’s heroine, her actions are in defiance of the church, the conservatives, the uneducated, and all ironclad moral codes by which society would view one differently.
Obvious Child is not exactly a lighthearted movie, and shouldn’t be taken as such, but what it can (and surely does) do is lighten one’s heart and present a choice. The moral takeaway is, you have to make the decision for yourself, regardless of what others think, and that doesn’t make you a bad person.
Bittersweet is usually used to describe a story’s end that doesn’t feel totally satisfying, but has enough sanity and motive to be so.