January 23, 2014



A surprisingly commercial concoction by Sundance standards, Gillian Robespierre’s OBVIOUS CHILD doesn’t feel very much unlike the pilot for a cable dramedy.  That’s not meant as any kind of dire criticism; TV could use more smart, funny female voices like Robespierre’s and star Jenny Slate’s (Slate is already featured in a multitude of high-class TV shows, from Parks & Recreation to House of Lies). Those looking for startling, transgressive cinema, however, should probably go elsewhere.

Slate, herself a stand-up comic, plays one here, in the person of Donna Stern.  Donna works a lot in small NY comedy clubs, but not enough to pay the rent, and she also clerks at an independent (and hence floundering) book store.  In the course of Obvious Child, which originated as a short film Robespierre wrote with Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm and Anna Bean, Donna suffers through a break-up that hits most of the singleton genre’s emotional stops, then has what may or may not be a one-night stand with the nice but not very cool Max (Jake Lacy)–only to discover that she’s pregnant.  What does set Obvious Child apart, even in 2014, is its matter-of-fact approach to the subject of abortion, which isn’t treated as the most traumatic, grueling event that could ever happen in a woman’s life.  Aside from that, though, Donna has been given the basic accoutrements of dozens of other rom-com heroines before her, from BFFs both female (Gaby Hoffman) and gay (Gabe Liebman) to loving if imperfect divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper).

Conventional as it ultimately may be, Obvious Child (which has already been bought for theatrical release) is a lot of fun, thanks to a script (and presumably some contributions by Slate and the other actors) filled with big, often bawdy laughs.  Donna falls into the confessional type of stand-up, and she doesn’t leave any embarrassing topics in her life unsaid, whether standing in front of a microphone or having drinks with her pals.  The role of Donna also gives Slate a welcome chance to stretch.  Casting directors on other projects seem to have her pegged as someone to play manipulative, passive-aggressive characters–and she’s great at them–but here she gets to be a fully-realized, vulnerable woman with a definite (if muddled even to herself) point of view, and she thrives on the additional depth.  Hoffman, having a career renaissance between this and her work in Crystal Fairy and the current season of Girls, and Liebman provide fine support, and although Lacy has the script’s least fleshed-out character, he’s charming.  Robespierre’s filmmaking is assured for a first-time feature director, and there’s particularly good use of music (including the Paul Simon song that gives the film its title), and cinematography by Chris Teague that makes the grunginess of its Williamsburg locations look handsome.

Obvious Child isn’t going to change film as we know it, but outside of Sundance, that’s not a crime.  It’s an enjoyable, slightly re-angled visit to territory that’s long been popular for a reason.  With the right marketing, it should find a significant audience.  If it actually were a pilot, it’s a series I’d watch.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."