Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “Obvious Child”


The 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival schedule went live on Thursday, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

Obvious Child” (Tuesday, April 8, 2:30 p.m. and Thursday, April 10, 8:45 p.m., Sundance Cinemas) — I was all alone on this one at the Sundance Film Festival.

Audiences, and most critics, loved this debut film from Gillian Robespierre and agreed it would be a breakout film for Jenny Slate, so good on “Saturday Night Live” and as Jean-Ralphio’s sister on “Parks and Recreation.” And I’m with them there — Slate is very funny as a fearlessly raunchy stand-up comedian working New York clubs. She’s so relentlessly, unabashedly raw, but in such a sweet way, like she doesn’t get what the fuss is about.

Here’s what I wrote about the film in January:

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.

But again, I was almost all alone there — the Hollywood Reporter thought it was “hilariously and wildly appealing,” while Variety called it “uproarious” and “refreshingly honest”

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