By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance 2014 Review: Obvious Child

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Spoiler alert: This review contains a true spoiler for this film. You have been forewarned.

Life is about the choices we make at those crucial crossroads in our lives; when we make a questionable life decision that has a serious consequence (and if you say you’ve never made one, I’m calling you a liar), which path do we choose? In her feature film Obvious Child (expanded from her 2009 short of the same title), writer-director Gillian Robespierre examines that question through the lens of her sharply funny screw-up of a protagonist, Donna Stern (SNL alum Jenny Slate), a Brooklyn stand-up comedian who finds her life falling apart when she gets dumped, fired and pregnant by a one-night stand, all in the same week.

Frankly, Donna is the kind of character I tend to not find terribly relatable in indie films. I’m pretty much out of patience for whiny late-20-to-early-30-somethings who can’t get their shit together, take responsibility for the lives, and grow up already. Blame it on the mom on me, who believes strongly in raising kids to be independent enough that when you shove them on out of the nest, they’re able to take wing and fend for themselves, at least for the most part. Much like Greta Gerwig’s Frances in Frances Ha, Donna is a perpetual girl-child, a grown, well-educated woman who works in a run-down bookstore, can’t figure out how to do her own taxes, can’t seem to get her love life together. She can’t see that her boyfriend isn’t happy about the way she works their relationship and sex life into her stand-up routines, any more than she can see that he’s tuned out of her and tuned into one of her friends – until he unceremoniously dumps her in the bathroom of the comedy club after a show. But where I found Frances (in spite of Gerwig’s excellent performance in Frances Ha) to be relentlessly annoying, Donna is drawn so unselfconsciously and without pretense that I loved her despite her flaws, and maybe even a little bit because of them.

While still flailing emotionally from her breakup, Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy), a super-nice businessman with a sweet, perfect smile and unfortunate taste in footwear (He wears boat shoes. Do you remember boat shoes? Enough said.) It’s maybe predictable that Max and Donna are going to end up in bed together, and that based on what we know about Donna up to that point, that the likelihood that she’ll make good choices around that one night stand are slim. What’s less predictable, at least based on how films tend to handle the idea of women facing an unwanted pregnancy, is the choice Donna will make about what to do about the situation in which she finds herself.

I’m not going to get into a rant here against films like Juno or Knocked Up, in which unplanned pregnancies were resolved through adoption and having and keeping the baby, respectively. I liked both those films, and didn’t have an issue with the path the protagonists took (not surprising, given that my own unplanned pregnancy at age 17 resulted in my daughter, who’s now 28 and pretty awesome). Choice, for me, means just that; the choice to have a baby and give it up, or to have a baby and keep it, is just as valid as the choice to terminate a pregnancy. What Obvious Child examines, though, is something filmmakers tend to shy away from: the idea that sometimes (maybe even a lot of the time), terminating an unplanned pregnancy is an equally valid, maybe even better, choice for a woman to make. Does it make as warm and precious an ending as a little bundle of adorable baby in someone’s arms? It doesn’t. But you know what? Life isn’t all about sweet bundles and everything coming up roses, sometimes it’s just about making the best choice you can at the time, and moving on from there.

Fortunately, Obvious Child isn’t a grim treatise on feminist politics and abortion; it’s smart, honest, and often bitingly funny. Both onstage and off, Donna says and does things that make you laugh out loud even as you’re cringing inside. As Donna, Slate strikes chords of raw truth that resonate, whether she’s onstage drunkenly performing a “set” about her loser boyfriend cheating on her with her friend, or hanging out with her best friend and roomie, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman). Nellie’s that kind of brutally honest friend who will call you on your bullshit, but she also knows when to bolster a friend who’s drowning in sorrow by dropping those truths in digestible doses. Slate and Hoffman play off each other perfectly; this is the way real best friends — or at least, real best friends who are a lot like me a my friends — talk and act around each other when they’re alone together.

I laughed a lot while watching Obvious Child. Not everyone will, to be honest – if fart jokes and sex jokes, abundant cursing, peeing in public and pooping in front of your best friend while awaiting the results of a pregnancy test are things that you can’t handle, this might not be the film for you. If you can get past those things to the core of this film, though, you might just find the places where Robespierre’s story resonates for you, too. It certainly did for me.

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“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many recappers, while clearly over their heads, are baseline sympathetic to finding themselves routinely unmoored, even if that means repeating over and over that this is closer to “avant-garde art” than  normal TV to meet the word count. My feed was busy connecting the dots to Peter Tscherkassky (gas station), Tony Conrad (the giant staring at feedback of what we’ve just seen), Pat O’Neill (bombs away) et al., and this is all apposite — visual and conceptual thinking along possibly inadvertent parallel lines. If recappers can’t find those exact reference points to latch onto, that speaks less to willful ignorance than to how unfortunately severed experimental film is from nearly all mainstream discussions of film because it’s generally hard to see outside of privileged contexts (fests, academia, the secret knowledge of a self-preserving circle working with a very finite set of resources and publicity access to the larger world); resources/capital/access/etc. So I won’t assign demerits for willful incuriosity, even if some recappers are reduced, in some unpleasantly condescending/bluffing cases, to dismissing this as a “student film” — because presumably experimentation is something the seasoned artist gets out of their system in maturity, following the George Lucas Model of graduating from Bruce Conner visuals to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenwriting.”
~ Vadim Rizov Goes For It, A Bit

“On the first ‘Twin Peaks,’ doing TV was like going from a mansion to a hut. But the arthouses are gone now, so cable television is a godsend — they’re the new art houses. You’ve got tons of freedom to do the work you want to do on TV, but there is a restriction in terms of picture and sound. The range of television is restricted. It’s hard for the power and the glory to come through. In other words, you can have things in a theater much louder and also much quieter. With TV, the quieter things have to be louder and the louder things have to be quieter, so you have less dynamics. The picture quality — it’s fine if you have a giant television with a good speaker system, but a lot of people will watch this on their laptops or whatever, so the picture and the sound are going to suffer big time. Optimally, people should be watching TV in a dark room with no disturbances and with as big and good a picture as possible and with as great sound as possible.”
~ David Lynch