When it comes to making romantic comedies, all too often filmmakers fall into familiar tropes and cliches. Even those considered indie can become predictable. A cute boy meets a quirky girl and they fall in love, with many laugh lines and demonstrations of how quirkiness can set people free along the way. It’s the kind of formula that appeals to the young and slightly-off-mainstream.
Thankfully, writer and director Gillian Robespierre doesn’t hold herself to that formula with her debut full-length feature “Obvious Child.” Sure, the foundation elements of a rom-com are there: The lead character, comedian Donna Stern played by Jenny Slate (Mona Lisa on “Parks & Rec”), goes through a nasty breakup and meets a charming young man with whom she navigates an awkward and hilarious early courtship. She is surrounded by archetypal supporting figures, like her warm father (Richard Kind) and distant mother (Polly Draper) or her aggressively feminist best female friend (Gaby Hoffman) and her gay stand up best male friend (Gabe Liedman). But with these pieces, Robespierre builds a story that feels like an honest, at times cringe-inducingly raw, and laugh-out-loud funny look at the vulnerable spots in relationships.
If you’ve read anything about “Obvious Child,” it’s most likely the fact that the plot hinges on an abortion. After Donna and Max (Jake Lacy) go home together the first time they meet, Donna finds herself pregnant. Without hesitation, she chooses to terminate the pregnancy. But to say this is an abortion film minimizes the true substance and maximizes what’s really a non-issue. Donna makes her decision and is supported by everyone in her life, including Max, who is sidelined by Donna’s announcing her decision during a standup routine the night before the procedure. Rather than playing this for drama, Max shows up at her door with flowers, goes with her to the clinic, and hangs out with her at his apartment afterwards. Even Donna’s mom, who is aloof throughout the film, embraces her daughter’s decision in a sweet bonding scene.
The film avoids dramatic displays of emotion, which somehow makes the relationships feel all the more touching. Max never makes a grand speech about Donna changing his life, but he does act silly with her and perfectly match her quick wit. Donna doesn’t fall out with her friends, who patiently nurse her through her breakup. Despite how stressed out Donna can get about her life, one gets the sense that her support system would be there to roll their eyes and bring her back down to Earth. By skipping the drama, Robespierre celebrates the little moments that make friendships and relationships worthwhile, whether it’s dancing to Paul Simon in your underwear or making each other laugh over dinner.
There’s an argument to be made that the 20-something Brooklynite struggling through life story is overplayed, shifting away from the supposed realness of the millennial experience it’s meant to portray. But in “Obvious Child” it still rings familiar, if only because Donna isn’t constantly sabotaging herself like so many supposed heroines. She’s a talented comedian who gets on stage regularly. She’s a responsible employee helping with the closing of the bookstore she’s worked at for years. She makes mistakes, but she apologizes for them and moves on. She’s a real person, not just a caricature of a hapless 20-something.
In the end, “Obvious Child” will leave you laughing. And you’ll really want to dance in your underwear to Paul Simon. Specifically this Paul Simon: