Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Obvious Child".
If you have heard Tig Notaro’s astonishing comedy album LIVE you have some sense of the vibe Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is aiming for. The album captures the already legendary set where Notaro hit the stage fresh from a cancer diagnosis and proceeded to spin that, and a slew of other recent misfortunes including the death of her mother and the disintegration of a long term relationship, into comedy gold.
The circumstances Obvious Child’s Donna Stern finds herself in are pretty rough, if not as dire as Notaro’s. In the space of a week Donna is dumped by her boyfriend, loses her job, and hits a new low on stage as a struggling NYC comedian. All this before the possibility of unplanned pregnancy enters the picture. The film captures the therapeutic thrill to be had in tackling your greatest fears in front of a live crowd and wrestling them into the stuff of comedy.
If the broad outlines sound like the sort of cheap irony (Abortions on Valentines Day!) that Sundance films too often fall into, know Obvious Child avoids the pitfall of formula thanks to the skill of two women: The smart, funny screenplay by writer/director Gillian Robespierre and the winning performance from Jenny Slate as Donna. The film may never reaches the heights of, say, Frances Ha’s take on similar material, but it unfolds with a directness and honesty that keeps the grinding of plot gears from becoming too audible. All this while keeping the laughs coming at the steady pace the film’s subject demands. Slate rings true in every aspect of the character, onstage as a standup and offstage as a woman flailing as her life choices simultaneously explode in her face.
It’s also worth noting that Obvious Child is quietly boundary pushing in its handling of abortion. When the idea of accidental pregnancy first enters the story I wondered if the film would really go there or if it would just brush of the possibility with a quip or two. Not only did the film go there, I can scarcely think of another movie that addressed the choice with more clarity and lack of judgment. Like the rest of the film, it goes at the subject with an empathetic and perceptive spirit, wielding comedy as a shield to deflect the most painful moments life can throw at you.
Obvious Child may not be a major film, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one, and it will surely do big things for Slate’s career. It’s an easy recommendation to make.
Distribution: A24 picked up Obvious Child in one of the earliest big sales of the festival