By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist June 19, 2014 at 12:15PM
Razor-sharp writing, taut direction, and a stellar central performance by Jenny Slate anchor Gillian Robespierre’s debut directorial feature “Obvious Child.” With its treatment of abortion dominating conversation and even the film’s promotional material, Robespierre notes she wanted to buck convention with her narrative aims, though she recognizes why the safer romantic comedy choices exist. “I watched those kind of films recently, and they’re still entertaining. We just wanted to tell the other side,” she says about the film, which follows New York stand-up comic Donna (Slate) as she discovers she’s pregnant after a drunken one-night-stand.
“We wanted to tell the story through the lens of an actual woman who is strong and funny and empowered and complex -- just normal,” she explains when we sat down with both her and Slate separately in Los Angeles. “Ultimately we didn't make a movie about legislation, we just made a movie about emotions and going through a slew of them, whether it's being dumped or being afraid to talk to your overbearing mom. That's where people could connect emotionally.”
Robespierre continues, “[The film] is also just a rebuttal to our culture. Everyone has a right to tell an interesting story, but it was more like, ‘What is wrong with our culture that keeps on silencing this voice where 1 in 3 women will have had an abortion in their lifetime and yet the stigma surrounding it is full of shame and judgment and fear and anxiety?’ ”
Based on a successful 2009 short of the same name written by Robespierre, Karen Maine, and Anna Bean, “Obvious Child” used its time wisely in considering that question on its the trip toward feature-length (our Sundance review here). Robespierre found valuable input and crew from a number of places: Film Fatales, a group of NYC female filmmakers that Robespierre calls “a really safe, funny, and fucking awesome place to go”; the San Francisco Film Society, who granted an essential day of workshopping, hikes, and table reads; and finally Kickstarter, where the team gathered an extra push to complete post-production.
Robespierre again partnered with Maine for the script alongside writer/producer Elisabeth Holm; together, they fleshed out the supporting cast, including Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, and Slate’s real-life best friend Gabe Liedman, a dynamic that is mirrored in the film.
Armed with Slate’s voice and mannerisms firmly in mind, the character of Donna hits a variety of shades and stages thanks to the smart script and Slate’s dramatic talents. Already proven a varied and deeply funny presence in everything from “Parks and Recreation” to her “Twin Peaks”-esque web series “Catherine” (“What a story would be like if everything was completely neutral”), Slate keeps the film’s balance of naturalism and broader moments in check. Despite both sharing surface similarities though, Slate considers Donna as a world away from herself as a person.
“I'm kind of glad that people think we're one and the same, because it means I did a believable job,” Slate says. “But I'm older than Donna and it's just important for me to have my shit together. I’m much more of a driven person. Donna’s not trying to be a movie actress. She's just a comedian. Maybe she'll get a book deal or have a podcast, but that's what she wants. She's satisfied living a rather small and contained life. She needs a kick in the ass and I don't. I'm just different than that. I'm more aware of boundaries, too.”
“Boundaries” may seem a ill-fitting word if you’ve heard a word of Slate’s stand-up material, portions of which are faithfully transferred over to the film—the opening scene alone features Donna describing her panties at day’s end in vivid detail. However, she remains acutely aware of the line where performance blurs over into too-personal territory.
“On-stage I have no problem talking about being horny or my body, but I would never make the mistake of embarrassing my husband onstage,” she says, referring to an early scene in the film where Donna lays her emotional baggage out for all to see. “It would never, ever happen. I won't do standup stoned; I'd also never get onstage totally wasted and fuck up. I might get onstage totally wasted and perform, but only if it'll be okay. I'm really aware of those nuanced limits.”