Film Review: A Funny and Compassionate ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious_Child5When I first heard someone talking about writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s new feature Obvious Child I wasn’t sure what to think – a romantic comedy entwined with the subject of abortion? No matter what one’s stance on that hot-button topic, I’m confident I’m not the only one who was wondering how – or if – that combination would work.

Well, it does work, because while the termination of pregnancy is a front-and-center topic it’s not the core of this funny and compassionate film (which is the expansion of a story contained in a 2009 short film by Robespierre, Anna Bean and Karen Maine) that opens in Nashville today exclusively at Belcourt Theatre. Robespierre’s script (based on a story originated by Robespierre, Maine and Elisabeth Holm) hums on all cylinders, but what ultimately makes Obvious Child click is the chemistry that leading actors Jenny Slate (“Parks and Recreation”) and Jake Lacy (“The Office”) bring to their well-written characters.

Obvious_Child1Young comic Donna Stern (Slate) uses her daily struggles as material for her onstage performances. After her two-timing boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti playing a cad to perfection) dumps her Donna winds up unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand with Max (Lacy). The immature young Brooklynite decides to have an abortion – but what about telling her divorced parents (Polly Draper and Richard Kind in wonderful appearances), let alone Max? She turns to her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffman, who never fails to hit the right notes in front of Chris Teague’s well-placed camera – remember her years ago as a child performer in Field of Dreams and Uncle Buck? She did some good work in “Girls” recently too) and comedy club boss Joey (the ever-hysterical Gabe Liedman of the “Kroll Show”) for support and forges ahead as her survival gig at a book store ends and her appointment for the abortion looms on Valentine’s Day.

Slate has also done stand-up in her career, and that coupled with the words Robespierre provides create some very sharp moments of blunt and lewdly funny observations. There’s also the kind of realistic humor only an awkward situation can inspire when a fellow comic named Sam played by the masterful David Cross tries to hit on her in the worst way.

Obvious_Child4The flick is strengthened by an eclectic score that includes songs from Paul Simon, The London Souls, Rarechild, Small Black and others as well as classical compositions from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. I’ve seen so many films that strain to provide the essence of such New York City boroughs as Brooklyn and Manhattan; Teague’s lovely cinematography and the soundtrack, which also bears the strong contributions of composer Chris Bordeaux, insure this film gets those locales just right.

But in the end the interplay between Slate and Lacy, which gets laughs but more importantly draws smiles, makes this very singular romantic comedy a pleasant experience. It really does look like blossoming love when these two are together despite the misunderstandings, mistakes and challenges this story contains. Obvious Child is not about abortion, though that subject is clearly and prominently present; it’s ultimately about the steps and stumbles we make while attempting to connect with and sustain each other through love and compassion.

 

Click here to go to the Belcourt Theatre website for showtimes and tickets. This 85-minute film is rated R for language and sexual content. Click here to visit the film’s official website.

*Photos and video courtesy A24.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).