Tweaking Consumer Expectations Department: “Obvious Child” is being promoted as a groundbreaking topical comedy about abortion. But it’s less than that. And more. And, basically, not. Instead, it’s a warm, sympathetic, very sloppy, and often very funny little movie about a young woman who, among several other things, is not remotely ready to be a parent and knows it. She deals with the news of her unwanted pregnancy as women have for millennia: as a worse than usual day at the office.
The movie doesn’t actually have an agenda. That’s its agenda.
For some of us, the real purpose of Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature may be to remind people that Jenny Slate is a star. The Milton-born comedian had a brief run on “Saturday Night Live” five years ago and has since done a lot of TV and voice-over work — her two “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” shorts nearly justify YouTube by themselves. She comes across as a sort of softer, slyer little sister to Sarah Silverman.
As Donna Stern, a penniless Brooklyn stand-up comic, Slate opens “Obvious Child” onstage with the words “I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants,” and right there you’ll know whether you’re in or out. Slate’s comedy is relentlessly body-dysfunctional but it’s also angst-free, as if the various effluvia and embarrassments were just part of God’s running joke on us mortals.
Donna’s a recognizable mess — the New York 20-something who can’t or won’t grow up — and in the movie’s opening minutes she loses a boyfriend (Paul Briganti) and her job at the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Used Bookstore. Her menschy puppeteer father (Richard Kind) can’t console her with his muppets and her frosty professor mother (Polly Draper) says things like “You waste that 780 Verbal with telling jokes about having diarrhea in your pants.”
“Obvious Child” seems to be operating in a post-“Girls” universe, but what’s really going on here is that young women like Slate and Robespierre and Lena Dunham (and plenty of others) are painting the realities of their gender in this particular generation: the freedoms and delusions, the self-loathing and double-edged sisterhood, and, yes, the moments of clarity. Slate understands that when Donna tells a shamelessly funny fart joke, that’s just the way she cries.
There’s a drunken one-night stand with a goodhearted preppie named Max (Jake Lacy), who seems to have made a left turn into Williamsburg on his way to the yacht club. A few weeks later, Donna steps gingerly into the immense sorority of women who have to Deal With It in ways that paralyze Hollywood movies like “Knocked Up.” The movie presents abortion as neither a life-destroying tragedy nor an ennobling freedom of choice but simply as one of the crummier necessary options in a woman’s existence.
That said, “Obvious Child” sugarcoats the pill in ways that are only sometimes defensible. Robespierre and Slate manage to strike the right tone of gallows humor and even the sillier jokes carry a rueful afterburn. The indispensable Gaby Hoffmann has parachuted over from “Girls” (and last year’s wonderful, little-seen indie “Crystal Fairy”) as Donna’s friend Nellie, who has been down this road herself. There’s the contractually obligated gay best friend, but Gabe Liedman gives the role some bite with lines like “I like my men like I like my coffee — weak and bitter.”
And Lacy as Max is extremely likable even if he becomes the supportive white knight and Dude ex Machina a movie like this shouldn’t need. “Obvious Child” brushes up against the notion that plenty of women go through abortions on their own, but it can’t summon the nerve to visit that reality on Donna; the movie is, when all is said and done, a comedy content to offer a consoling view of the world. Sometimes, after a lousy day at the office, that’s all a person wants.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.
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In “Obvious Child,” the Milton native plays a normal woman — for a change.