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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Obvious Child’ – a movie about a woman’s choice grows on you

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Obvious Child” offers the responsible critic (and we are assuming I am one…) an interesting conundrum.

What if you heartily agree with the point the picture is trying to make and applaud it for doing so, but the movie itself is, well, so-so.

A recent example would be “12 Years a Slave,” a very good movie in many ways. Good enough to be deemed the Best Picture of the year at the Academy Awards.

I respected “12 Years a Slave” for many reasons, not the least being that it told an important story.

Did I think it was the best movie of the year?

Not really. However, not only was it well directed, acted, etc., it renewed the crucial debate concerning our nation’s tainted history. If nothing else, “12 Years” is the sort of film that should be shown at high schools and colleges, brought back on anniversaries, and included in important film retrospectives of our nation’s history.

Film-wise, “Obvious Child” is the opposite of “12 Years” in almost every way.  It is small (83 minutes), not epic. Indifferently photographed in that indie no-budget way (“12 Years” cost around  $20 million). Moderately well-acted (no Oscar nominations here) And Gillian Robespierre’s (can that be her real name???)  direction is far more pedestrian than Steve McQueen’s.

But “Obvious Child” is also about a hugely important topic: the lives of young women in the 21st century and the choices they have available.

In this instance, the woman is a struggling young stand-up comic named Donna  (Jenny Slate) who decides to have an abortion.

As comics go, Donna is pretty abominable. Her stand-up routine, which opens the movie, is wincingly bad. Worse, It’s not meant to be bad.  It’s supposed to be quite funny.  We are to think she has talent. That she’s an irreverent soul who makes risky jokes about her underwear.  That she just needs to hang in and she will — deservedly — make it.

Well, I barely made it through her monologue, which lowered expectations exponentially. What’s wrong with Donna, according to the movie, isn’t her crushingly bad comedy; it’s her crushingly bad life. Her boyfriend has dumped her, and her day job isn’t going well either. The used bookstore where she works is closing.

However, things are about to go really wrong — or really right, in a screwed-up kind of way.

Donna has a drunken, mutually enjoyable night of wild sex with a stranger named Max (Jake Lacy, who recalls a young Matt Damon). He’s fun. He’s cute. He’s sweet. He also may not have put on his condom (though, to both the film’s and the characters’ credit, a condom is introduced by the time they’re in bed; it just doesn’t make it to the right, um, place).

The upshot of all this is, Donna is pregnant, and she barely knows the father.  She weighs her options and, with the support of her best friend (Gaby Hoffmann), opts for an abortion.

This, by the way, is a bit instructive for those of us who’ve never undergone the procedure ourselves. As soon as she makes her (legal) decision, Donna goes to a clinic. There, she’s told that, at three weeks, she isn’t yet pregnant enough for an abortion. She’s also calmly — and clearly — reminded she has other choices she can make.

Another nice touch— Donna doesn’t go to the clinic thoughtlessly. Nor does she go rubbing her hands in glee—as in, Aha! Another strike against the white male patriarchy. In fact, when Hoffmann voices just such a sentiment about the Supreme Court, Donna looks at her as if she’s gone a bit nutty.

As I said, “Obvious Child” begins badly. Very.

But as soon as Max walks in, the movie perks up.  So does Donna, whom we get to know as more than a cruddy would-be comedian.

Like her movie, Slate grows on you.  She looks uncannily like a young Amanda Plummer (Christopher’s daughter; you saw her, probably, in “Pulp Fiction”).  Her vulnerability also becomes more attractive as we learn we’re intended to see her as both adorable and (less-adorably) needy.  She is, of course, the obvious child of the title.

As for Lacy, I can hardly remember the last time an indie picture made a straight-on, good-guy, obviously WASP character someone worth our time. There are moments when “Obvious Child” could just as easily be called “Dreamboat.”

Wisdom usually comes with a price.  In “Obvious Child,” the price is very 21st century.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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