Sundance Film Festival: “Obvious Child” presents a funny and very unclean Slate

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I like Jenny Slate. The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member is pretty bold about playing larger-than-life, often unlikable characters, such as Jean-Ralphio’s sister on “Parks and Recreation.”

Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” which premiered Friday as part of the NEXT program for low-budget indie filmmaking, is a great showcase for Slate’s voice as well as giving her a more down-to-earth and human character to play. The banter is often fast and filthy, but still finds room for an underlying sweet tone. But the film’s fearlessness trips itself up when it moves into hot-button territory — abortion — and tries to maintain the same jokey say-anything spirit.

Slate plays Donna, a stand-up comedian who specializes in raunchy, highly personal material (Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who got the vapors over Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s jokes at the Golden Globes, will likely fall into a deep coma). After her boyfriend dumps her for putting too much of their personal lives on stage, she falls into bed with Max (Jake Lacy), an aw-shucks nice guy she meets at the comedy club.

They spend the night, a condom may be involved, and Donna intends to go her separate ways from Max. The film’s sexual politics, in which women aren’t obsessed with finding the next Mr. Right, are bracingly real for what’s in many ways a romantic comedy. Then Donna finds out she’s pregnant.

One assumes that this will go the “Knocked Up” route, that Donna will briefly consider having what Jonah Hill called a “shmashmortion” before deciding to keep the baby, because, well, babies. But no, she’s pretty set on having a shmashmortion, and the only real drama in “Obvious Child” comes with whether she’ll tell Max about it at all.

Points to “Obvious Child” for not taking the easy way out. But there’s a point in the film, as the procedure date looms, when it feels like the screenplay needs to shift into a deeper place somehow. But I think Robespierre and Slate are so committed to not doing what other movies do whose female protagonists face this choice that they end up not doing much at all, just sort of skating over the implications and the repercussions of Donna’s decision. They don’t want to make it be the end of Donna’s world, but they don’t really end up exploring how it affects her world at all. Instead we get sitcom jokey-jokes like Donna’s friend (Gaby Hoffmann) saying befor a gig “You’re going to kill it out there tonight” and Donna saying “Actually, I have an appointment to do that tomorrow!” Ouch.

Interestingly, during the post-show Q&A Slate said she thought that joke was really important to the film, because abortion is usually discussed in either strident pro-life terms (“It’s a sin!”) or strident pro-choice terms (“I can do whatever I want with my body!”) For her part, Slate said she was glad to be playing a real woman. “I’m eager to do work that’s truer to the experiences that women have in the world.”

I’m eager to see more of that from Slate, but “Obvious Child” is a troubled first step in that direction.

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