Stating the Obvious

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

In the wake of Bridesmaids’ box office success three years ago, I remember a host of think pieces whose titles all asked variations on the same question: “Does this mean women will get to headline comedies now?” Well, the cinema landscape may still be overwhelmingly patriarchal, but I’ve been noticing more and more vehicles for comediennes cropping up recently. Some (Pitch PerfectThe Heat) may feature break-out Bridesmaids cast members. Others may just bear strands of its narrative DNA. Most of them, I grant you, are pretty lousy. But my observations suggest that a new-ish type of movie is emerging—or more likely, an old-ish subgenre’s becoming more commonplace—that I’ll describe with the unwieldy label of “millennial [or ‘post-Recession’?] feminist comedy.”

It’s true that values have been shifting since forever; that countless comedies from earlier decades have moved the goalposts from “Can she find a man?” to “Can she have it all?” or “Can she make it on her own?” But at least from this moviegoer’s perspective, pushback against the (once?) dominant romcom model is evolving into a loose formula of its own, with the question becoming “Can she make it as an adult?” I’m reminded here of my favorite movie from last year, Frances Ha, as well as Lake Bell’s In a World… and, of course, the movie at hand, Obvious Child.

Each of these films is, like Bridesmaids, shaped by real-world social and economic climates, wherein young women may have one-night stands and zero job security. Their lives may tarry around romantic subplots, but vocations (dancing, voice acting, comedy) or close friendships will always take precedence. Comedy of the cringe and gross-out varieties are prominent in these films, uninhibited by stereotypes about “ladylike” behavior. And in addition to starring them, the projects I’ve listed also involve women in other creative capacities: writers, directors, producers. (Not shockingly, these films are also overwhelmingly about white women who live in major metropolitan areas.) Again, none of these traits are really brand new, but they are coalescing in consistent and intriguing ways.

I’m impressed, for example, by what Obvious Child takes for granted—i.e., that women are entitled to control their own bodies and lives—as well as what it doesn’t do when Jenny Slate’s Donna discovers she’s pregnant. It doesn’t dwell on whether she’ll have the abortion or the feelings of the guy who impregnated her, nor does it devolve into a morass of twists and contrivances. Instead it stays with her, in her head, in Slate’s crumpled smile-that-wants-to-be-a-frown. All the supporting characters in Donna’s life (friends, parents, beau) are rather thinly written, serving mostly as foils and sounding boards. But that’s not disastrous, because the film’s framed by her solipsism, and its best scenes play like excerpts from a one-woman show.

These include her stand-up sets (very funny, if a little rough); a montage of a drunken night spent leaving voice mails for a hated ex; and an interview with her own brain, conducted in the three minutes before a pregnancy test yields its results. Here as elsewhere, Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre demonstrate a knack for words tripping over dirty words and an awareness of what an extraordinary comic tool an actress’s body and voice can be. They revel in this grotesque femininity and in visual tokens of Donna’s immaturity: a muppet designed by her dad, a cardboard box where she can hide, a pair of Crocs. The question “Can she make it as an adult?” is never answered, but it is nimbly navigated with joke after crude coping mechanism joke, until this particular set of crises has been weathered.

[Originally published on Letterboxd.]

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