Whatever your foreknowledge of low-budget Brooklyn dramedies, it’s impossible that Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child won’t lob you at least a few curveballs. Starring SNL’s Jenny Slate as Donna, a wide-eyed, abrasive comedienne in her late 20s, the film courageously fudges the line between oversharing and wooing your audience, literally: Robespierre opens on one of Donna’s sweetly foul-mouthed stand-up sets, well-received by the crowd while smoke pours out of her schlubby boyfriend’s ears in the back of the room. Donna’s adrenaline rush comes to a screeching halt when he corners her in the bathroom and tells her he’s been sleeping with one of her friends—and just like that, their relationship is over.
The crosshatching of legit vulnerability and bottomlessly crude bluster is the engine of Robespierre’s screenplay, which wastes no time dropping a rough situation on its heroine and then somehow giving her plenty of space to make it worse. “When you go up there, people love you,” Donna’s roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) says, “Because you don’t pretend to be anybody other than who you are.” In her frantic post-breakup maneuvering, Donna careens from being annoying to hilarious to endearing, with room to spare for being pathetic, which is what happens when she tries winging it on stage both trashed and embittered. In terms of depicting stand-up as its own creative process, Robespierre’s insight is considerable: Donna’s funniest bits come from being both aware of, and unburdened by, the fact that she’s asking the audience to love her—which is more than can be said for most aspiring comedians back in the real world.
Donna’s drunken fling with an Affleckesque un-hipster named Max (Jake Lacy) initially threatens to sink the script’s believability: In Hollywood, after all, there’s always some winsomely bland dude on the sidelines ready to fill the gaping void left by a heroine’s lost love. But their one-night-stand actually gets Donna pregnant, at which point Obvious Child becomes something else entirely—a romantic comedy centered around an abortion which, frankly, isn’t the same thing proposed by the “abortion comedy” phrase ubiquitously attached to Robespierre’s film. Obvious Child hits more often than it misses, but it does miss, sometimes conspicuously: Nellie goes on an anti-Max screed that serves no apparent purpose except to inject some explicit feminism into the film’s dialogue, and even the character concedes she’s beside the point. But as a study in the clash of spoonfed immaturity and frigid reality, it signals clear-eyed compassion, which is usually, in turn, undercut by another poop-and-piss joke from Donna, highlighting that accumulating wisdom is always going to be a messy process.