If Obvious Child is remembered for anything, it’ll be for launching the cinematic career of Jenny Slate. It’s a sweet, funny, and touching tale about a fledgling comic who has to go through some really bad stuff to find something good. Writer and director Gillian Robespierre instinct’s are good, but it’s Jenny Slate that makes it shine.
Slate is comfortably uncomfortable as Donna Stern, a nighttime comic, sometime actress, and daytime bookstore clerk. She watches as her life falls apart — she gets dumped and loses her job — but sees light through humor. It helps that Slate is genuinely wry yet empathetic. Lost and already feeling at her lowest, she has a one night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) and finds out she’s pregnant. It’s not just that Robespierre treats it with weight but realism, but it’s that the film always retains a playfulness, even if it comes out of hurt.
But it’s Slate who walks the line as she bombs drunkenly on stage, treating the whole room as a therapist’s office, regurgitating her issues about her ex to a stunned audience. She’s constantly suffering, but balances it with a muted exuberance. It makes sense, though, that she has to wrestle with some major issues at a crossroads in her life. It’s a classic coming-of-age film, or to be more on point, a quarter-life crisis story. She’s active and stays busy with all of her different activities, but she doesn’t seem to be moving forward in any significant way. The film doesn’t really take a stand on what “moving forward” means for Donna, but it certainly portrays her as someone spinning their wheels.
If there’s anything holding the film back it’s its sometimes indie genericness — not helped by the twee music, or overuse of Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child” — and the thinness of its story. Gabby Hoffman adds a great touch as Donna’s best friend and roommate Nellie, while Max sometimes feels somewhat underwritten. The story is focused on Donna, but it helps her quandary about him, and his seed, if the object of her affection is more fleshed out. That’s not to say their relationship doesn’t have some depth, with Donna resisting her attraction due to his not really being “her type.” If the looseness is one of the reasons Slate has a platform to stand out, it can be at the cost of having dramatic weight when it needs it.
Even at its lightest, it’s an enjoyable journey to watch. Donna figures out that life is sometimes completely incomprehensible, yet the messiness can lead to something worthwhile. If anything, it’s a joy to watch Slate have so much fun in the role. She’s proven she has chops before, but in Obvious Child she illustrates her depth.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5