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SXSW review: ‘Obvious Child’ a refreshingly honest romantic comedy

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

“Obvious Child” is a romantic comedy solely in the literal sense. The movie stars comedian/actress Jenny Slate – firmly checking the “comedy” box – and flirts with the early stages of an authentic romance between an unlikely couple.

But Gillian Robespierre’s feature, which played SXSW Sunday night, doesn’t hit pat comedic beats or make a caricature of its lead with tropes of the maudlin single girl longing for love in the Big City.

The movie, which played the Topfer Sunday night as part of SXSW, takes a refreshingly honest look at the nuances and realities of unplanned pregnancy in a way few recent movies have. It doesn’t patronize or victimize its central character. Donna Stern (Slate) is too self-aware and self-effacing to have any of that.

We meet Stern as she comes off stage at her regular stand-up gig in Brooklyn, where she has killed the audience with a bout of oversharing and anatomical humor (a Slate specialty that is surprisingly charming given the subject matter). Following her set, Stern’s boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her in a unisex bathroom, the honesty and vulnerability of the public environment an ironically crass place for such an intimate act.

Stern makes for an entertaining jilted lover – she uses alcohol and sarcastic banter with her good friends Nellie (Gabby Hoffmann) and Joey (Gabe Liedman) to tend and cover the emotional wound. Slate lends light-heartedness to playing unhinged, and spirals downward like a pale flower in the tumult of an autumn breeze. Her ache belies a confidence that makes the audience certain the comedian will rebound – even after losing her bookstore job.

But her ability to navigate a struggling artists’ life reaches a tipping point after a night of drinking and questionable decision making. Soaking her concerns at the bar one night she meets the impossibly clean-cut Max (Jake Lacy). A night of drinking leads to some pretty adorable and sloppy foreplay and unexpected sex.

Stern is happy to move on and forget the one-night stand, but a few weeks later, the consequences of that night can’t be ignored. When she discovers she is pregnant – in a scene of dizzying panic that Robespierre and Slate capture with a slow-motion setting in of debilitating anxiety – Stern first crumbles. But she is quick to steel herself and make the decision that she shouldn’t have the child.

While firm in her decision, Stern can’t use jokes to evade the emotional weight of the situation. As the date of her abortion approaches, Stern turns to her parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), who both lend their support in differing and realistic ways, and leans on her sympathetic friends.

When Max refuses to let the fling be relegated to one-night stand status, Stern is forced to be honest about what she wants for her life and in a romantic partner.

“Obvious Child” never attempts to sermonize or create melodrama. The movie makes clear that abortion is not an abstract concept. It’s a difficult personal choice that each woman handles individually. Slate blends brash humor and humbled humanity to shade the complexities of such a significant decision, while never pleading for the audience’s sympathy. It is a tough and tender performance, a depiction of vulnerability and self-acceptance.