I don’t get gross-out comedy. Maybe it’s my New England roots or simple prudishness, but I would be just as happy to never hear another joke about vomiting, diarrhea, or anal sex. So when “Obvious Child” opened with the scene of an aspiring stand-up comedian, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), performing a whole bit about her dirty underwear, I was dubious. I expect summer blockbusters to overflow with toilet humor (box office returns seem to depend on twelve-year-old boys), but why was it invading my feminist indie flick?
It turns out perpetual adolescence and the absurdity of the human body are key elements to this original, painfully funny film. Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, “Obvious Child” mines some familiar territory of the creative twenty-something who can’t quite grow up. By night, Donna bares her soul and sex life on stage as a comic at New York dive bars. By day, she works as a clerk at “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Books,” borrows money from her hard-charging professor mother (Polly Draper), eats spaghetti dinners prepared by her doting puppeteer father (Richard Kind), and shops with her supportive, if self-righteous, pal Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann). It is not, as Donna might say, a grown-up lady’s life.
From the films “Jeff Who Lives at Home” and “Young Adult” to “Failure to Launch,” Hollywood has in recent years been fascinated by characters who inhabit their own personal Never-Never-Lands. There’s much to satirize in these anti-heroes’ self-absorption and shirking of responsibility. But while Robespierre—and Donna herself—poke fun at childishness, they also celebrate it. Sure, kids can be selfish and careless. But they are also relentlessly honest and uninhibited.
Despite the R-rated topics in Donna’s routines, she maintains a compelling innocence. Her jokes are harmless, even sweet—like a child discovering bodily functions—rather than the ugly and even violent comedy in many movies. (Why is every big-budget raunch-fest now compelled to include multiple jokes about prison rape?) Most importantly, she is willing to be vulnerable. When she starts riffing about her Jewish features or uncontrollable flatulence, you believe her. That frankness creates true intimacy with the audience, both in the club and the movie theatre.
The question is: what happens when the “obvious child” is faced with an adult situation? For Donna, coming of age begins when she hooks up with Max (Jake Lacy), a straight-laced Vermonter like myself who is “so Christian he’s a Christmas tree.” After some serious drinking, outdoor urination, and dancing to Paul Simon (“Obvious Child” takes its name from Simon’s 1990 hit), Max and Donna have some fun with a condom, but fail to actually use it. The resulting pregnancy lands Donna at Planned Parenthood, scheduling an abortion for Valentine’s Day.
For Robespierre, the pregnancy isn’t really an issue of “choice” or “life;” the film operates in a world where the moral as well as the legal right to an abortion is a given. The question is not what decision Donna will make, but how she will deal with that decision. Can she grow up, while retaining her honesty and humor? What happens when your body becomes more than a gag? And since this is a romantic comedy, albeit a subversive one, will she get the guy?
There’s a political statement in making a movie about abortion that is patently non-moralistic. But more than politics or abortion itself, “Obvious Child” is about becoming an adult without losing your identity. When Donna is struggling, Nellie reassures her, “you are unapologetically yourself on that stage and that’s why people love you.” That’s the true moral of the story—and it’s a good one. Shamelessly funny, potty mouth and all, Donna isn’t limited by her mistakes; they are what make her.
Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.