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Laughing At Your Own Pain is Brilliantly Hilarious in ‘Obvious Child'

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by Carlos Aguilar
June 6, 2014 12:56 PM
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Obvious Child

When it comes to comedy there is an unspoken list of touchy subjects that are usually off the table. The line between cruelty and hilarity is perhaps scarily thin. Each gag is a gamble. Among those blacklisted sources for comedic material, abortion ranks high on the list. One could go on and on about how a film that takes this lightly could have never happened in a country that still finds it divisive. But that would reduce Gillian Robespierre’s "Obvious Child"to a film about abortion, which is not. It’s a film about a woman's uncompromising way to look at her life who, given the circumstances she is faced with, decides to have an abortion. This choice doesn't define the character or the film.

Said woman is Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) a Brooklyn standup comedian whose act is heavily influenced by how she perceives her own shortcomings. In other words, she makes people laugh by making fun of herself in a delightfully raunchy manner. Unfortunately, not everyone can take honesty and self-parody with a grain of salt. After a rambunctious performance at her usual hole in the wall bar, her boyfriend breaks up with her. He has found someone else and blames Donna’s unruly lifestyle for the fall out in the relationship. Donna’s version of a sensible reaction to the unpleasant news is to drink, stalk, and wallow in self-pity for a few days. This marvelous procedural to post-break-up recovery culminates with an on stage venting session in which she bleeds out her sorrows in front of a perplexed audience. In this tragic but gloriously amusing sequence, the young woman finds a rebound.

Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in "Obvious Child"

Looking like he’s never broken any hearts, Max (Jake Lacy), a small town student in New York, approaches a vulnerable and intoxicated Donna. She is needy, he is caring, they are drunk, he farts on her face, she laughs, and unavoidably they connect. As grotesque and non-romantic as the previous description sounds, the pair enjoys a night of dancing, foolishness, and forgettable sex that will turn out to be more memorable than expected. Dependent on her parents’ loans for survival and unsure of where her life is going, Donna feels more adrift than ever. Not exactly what she needs, but an unwanted pregnancy looming on her near future will serve as catalyst for a hilarious story of renewed self-discovery.

A reaction to the man-child epidemic in bromance comedies, Robespierre’s debut is an empowering film that allows its protagonist to be tremendously flawed, but at the same time being in control of what she wants for her life. Donna’s decision not to be a mother at the time is a product of her inability to take care of her own needs. She is not ready and she admits it. Just like with any other negative experience, she decides to bare it all and laugh at her pain. Being vocal about it in the comfort of strangers is a liberating undertaking. Donna exchanges guilt for comedic truth.

Sweet and sour in equal quantities throughout, Slate is uncompromisingly perfect. Her charmingly obscene tone commands the story with heartfelt fragility covered in childish extroversion. Even when she is broken every sentence exclaimed packs hilarious irony. What is most amazing is that her personality never feels fabricated. The film is painfully real without taking itself very seriously. It takes a flawless marriage between outstanding writing and ideal casting to concoct such a star-making performance. One can only imagine the joyful epiphany Robespierre experienced when she saw Donna come to life through Slate - nothing short of a revelation.

Instead of punishing Donna for her lack of responsibility, ‘Obvious Child’ speaks warmly about immaturity and the right to be lost. Regardless of how much everyone likes to think that adults have it all figure out, for the most part we are simply children disguised in formal attire. That child, herself, is the one Donna needs to take care of. She needs to give her a chance to fulfill her aspirations, to find a partner that accepts her brutal lack of tact, and to be a careless drunk once in a while. Breaking away from the mold of expectations is a brave move by any standards. It is hard to think of anything more pro-life than that.


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