Between all the jokes about panty gunk and public urination, there’s a tenderness to Obvious Child, the directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre. Actually, as with Wetlands, another female character-centered movie with a fondness for bodily fluids, the mundane grossness of parts of Obvious Child only work to support its fondness for its very human characters. Bodies and relationships can be squishy, smelly, and awkward–but humans usually manage to not only have them but want them. There’s a comfort to that, and this is a film that pays a great deal of attention to the giving of comfort.
Stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is struggling. She’s funny–she strikes me as a believable level of funny for someone working the lower-middle rungs of the comedy circuit–and she has friends and a supportive family, but the film almost immediately leads into her boyfriend breaking up with her in a public restroom and goes on to show her losing the bookstore job that’s supported her for the last five years. She spends some time spiraling and, in the process, meets and drunkenly hooks up with the clean-cut, earnest Max (Jake Lacy). A few weeks later, she realizes that night left her pregnant–“I remember seeing a condom. I just don’t know exactly what it did“–and the news only makes her sink down lower. She’s sure she wants an abortion, since she’s in no way ready to be a mother, but the procedure’s expensive and she’s scared her mother will be disappointed in her. She feels like she’s made a colossal, characteristically irresponsible blunder. And now, to make matters worse, the abortion is scheduled for Valentine’s Day.
But this is a romantic comedy, albeit a low-key one all too attuned to disappointments, so life also brings Donna and Max back into each orbits. Slate and Lacy are great as two people who are charmed but tentative, with Lacy nailing the way Max is drawn to Donna’s weirdness but also made uncertain by it and Slate perfectly capturing how Max’s kindness simultaneously attracts Donna and terrifies her. There’s a restaurant scene where Max matter-of-factly holds the chilled pad of butter in his hands for a second before passing it over to her, and Donna is sweetly flustered by the fact that anyone would even think to warm up butter for it. It’s the kind of small physical detail the movie nails.
Obvious Child gets mentioned often for being one of the few movies where the protagonist not only chooses to have an abortion but also goes through with it and receives no narrative criticism for it. That’s certainly rare. But it’s also worth mentioning that that treatment is a moral stance as much as a political one. Above all else, Obvious Child is deeply sympathetic to the messiness of life (especially the parts of it that often go unmentioned) and to the ways people have to deal with it as best as they can.