Is there a name for modern indie comedies about aimless twenty-somethings going through difficult circumstances and finding direction at the end of it all? You’ve probably seen one. It starts out with a character who is out of sorts, and she instantly experiences something that shakes up her already loose sense of comfort. Then, things pile up, while adults or friends tell her that she needs to figure out what to do with herself. She meets someone, usually a guy who is goofy but kind. She starts to find the relationship meaningful. She confronts her problems. She screws something up with that guy, but fixes it along with her other issues. She finds a stronger sense of self. Regardless of the material changes in her life, she has gone through satisfying emotional ones. Liberal Arts (2012), In a World (2014), and even Frank (2014) have cadences of this, although each puts the occasional spin on the formula. I’m sure there are dozens of others that match the outline.
Obvious Child (2014) is unabashedly modern in its utilization of these tropes. The structure of it is not unique, and the secondary characters often feel like they could be named by the function they serve for the main character, Donna (Jenny Slate). Sorry, Nancy, you’re now “Undermining and Unhelpful Detached Mother.” Oh, did you say your name is Joey? Eh, you look more like an “Inoffensively Supportive and Enabling Friend” to me.
However, in a lot of ways, Obvious Child‘s strengths stem from its adherence to a formula. Sure, many movies have had the scene where the main character gets miserably drunk as indie tunes play and the editing reaches incoherence; but the familiarity of such scenes in Obvious Child reveal the extent to which Donna is and is not a part of her social and cinematic context. Her narrative resembles other movies of this era, and the notion of a lost, aimless twenty-something lines up with every think-piece on Millennials that you’ll ever read. Yet, Donna is still relatable and complex, because we understand what drives her, what hinders her (even if it’s herself), and what sets her apart from other characters and young New Yorkers—despite her familiarity.
The major strength of the movie is tied to what makes Donna such an engaging protagonist: the structure is familiar, but the scenes themselves are unique and refreshing. Director/screenwriter Gillian Robespierre—who makes her feature film debut with Obvious Child—uses the formula because it works, but showcases her strengths within that formula through witty, human dialogue. Sure, you might sigh at the cliche moment when Donna’s potential romantic partner, Max (Jake Lacy), shows up at just the wrong time. More importantly, though, once you get past that and experience the interaction between these two people, your eye-rolling fades away as you experience a conversation that is funny, fresh, and fitting. Each individual scene stands out as an example of empathetic, inspired writing. Because so many things are familiar, the contrast with the unique serves to make the skill in Robespierre’s writing and direction all the more clear. If you don’t mind the glaring obviousness of the formula, then you’ll appreciate the uniqueness all the more.
Of course, Robespierre does not deserve all the credit. The cast of Obvious Child is stellar. Featuring talented character actors like David Cross and Richard Kind—as well as a wonderfully subtle performance from Gaby Hoffmann—this film brings out the comedy and humanity in the script due to perfectly delivered performances. Although one of the major disappointments of Obvious Child is the lack of an arc for almost every character besides Donna, the stagnant nature of the other characters is not so painfully felt due to the performances. Still, I can’t help but be disappointed that Robespierre missed the opportunity to develop the theme of aimless, childlike adults by giving the other characters clear direction; while they are all confident, few of them seem fit to help Donna grow.
In a movie full of stellar casting, Jenny Slate stands at the forefront. Her delivery of the words never feels short of genuine—an important feat for a character who rubs people the wrong way—and her mannerisms/physicality suggest the embodiment of a character. I think that Slate’s performance might be one of my favorite of last year, simply because it feels so breathlessly intimate and non-judgmental of a character that many would be all too quick to dismiss. Most importantly, she sells the humor completely, allowing us to laugh as we wince. The use of gross-out humor—and given Donna’s persona as a raunchy and straight-shooting comedian, there’s plenty of it—works so well because it’s built up to and well-delivered. The level of care given to even the silliest or crassest of jokes makes Obvious Child‘s humor stand above a lot of similarly-minded indie comedies.
I don’t know if Obvious Child will be a movie that transcends time, but I do think it will be remembered as more than a cultural artifact. I think that the heart in Robespierre’s direction and writing, as well as in Slate’s acting, will keep Obvious Child in the memories of those who enjoy sharp dialogue, pointed humor, and human stories. But more importantly, I conjecture that it will be remembered as the first feature film by a talented filmmaker, and as one of the earlier films in the career of a talented actress. Obvious Child might be obvious in its narrative structure, but it’s far more exciting in how it excels, uniquely, in the capacities that make movies enjoyable.
Postscript. Having had some more time to deliberate, I have some more comments. I talked earlier in this review about Donna’s social and cinematic context. By social context, I mostly meant the adjectives surrounding the Millennial generation: purposeless, aimless, etc. However, one of Obvious Child‘s great successes is how it pushes narrative boundaries due to its social context on a larger level. I’m referring mostly to the the last third or so of this film *SPOILERS*, which largely focuses on Donna learning she is pregnant and needing an abortion.
Maybe I don’t see enough movies, but this isn’t a narrative that gets much attention in mainstream or popular indie cinema. It’s challenging simply because it taps into a voice that does not get much time to speak. The story isn’t tied down to current political discourses surrounding abortion, though; rather, it focuses on the humanity of Donna—which is sadly a political statement in and of itself—and thus reflects a social issue without sacrificing its longevity. Obvious Child has an important role in the ever-morphing discourses of narrative cinema because it de-stigmatizes an experience while tapping into the human story behind it.