A run on Saturday Night Live can be career-ending for a lot of people. For every Bill Murray or Will Ferrell there are a dozen Finesse Mitchells and Jerry Minors. That’s not a slam on the comedians who can’t quite hack it on the show (indeed, Jerry Minor is a very funny man); even hilarious cast members like Tim Meadows have trouble finding success once their tenure is up. So I can imagine things are even more difficult when your exit from the show is less than amicable. Jenny Slate was a featured cast member during the 2009-2010 season. Her brief stint was mired in a profanity-linked controversy, and she never found her place in the cast. I’m sure most people wrote her off after her exit, but her talent and tenacity has brought her back to the public eye in roles on Parks and Recreation and Kroll Show. And now Slate can be seen in the incredibly funny indie comedy Obvious Child from writer/director Gillian Robespierre.
The film follows struggling stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Slate) as a surprise break-up and a surprise lay-off lead her down a drunk and debauched road, and onto a collision course with a very grown-up decision in the wake of a one-night stand. I won’t say too much more about the plot (though most semi-intelligent readers ought to be able to figure out what I am so vaguely talking about above) as it is really fun to watch unfold. Donna is surrounded by friends (Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman) and family (Polly Draper, Richard Kind), but she experiences an isolation that is deeper than physical.
That is something that Robespierre seems very intent on analyzing: Donna’s odd brand of individuality. The title Obvious Child refers to Donna more than it does to anything else in the movie. This is the story of her evolution from a pretty immature person to a slightly-less-immature person. It’s a film about how big changes can change you. Donna’s fierce independent streak – which is tempered by her emotional reliance on Hoffmann’s character – cracks a little over the course of the movie, and the important message is that such a thing may not necessarily be bad.
This is all conveyed extremely effectively by Slate, who gives an extremely layered and likable performance, even if the character may not be the greatest stretch for her personality-wise. Slate manages to show depth that was not apparent in her previous work, while still managing to be funny and charming.
Hoffmann and Draper do a fair amount of supporting work as well – though the film really belongs to Slate. That is more than can be said for Liedman or Kind. But while Liedman at least gets to be funny, Kind is mostly wasted. Even Jake Lacy as Max, Donna’s aforementioned one-nighter that she just can’t shake, is pretty thin.
It is hard to hold the movie’s “male problem” against it, though, as it is so rare to find such a funny and unapologetic woman-led film. This movie isn’t about the men, and it’s not supposed to be. Late in the picture, during a run-in with a fellow stand-up, played by David Cross, Robespierre and Slate show a side of the feminine experience that is too often ignored in film and television. And it is extremely refreshing to see.
Movies like Bridesmaids have shown that there is at least some interest in female-driven comedy. I don’t know if Obvious Child exists because of that earlier film, but it builds on the groundwork of that more outlandish movie to build a quieter, funnier character study. One with a lot more to say about struggle, love, life, and choices. Obvious Child not only gives us a (short) entertaining feature – it also shows two incredible talents in the form of Robespierre and Slate. Two artists who definitely merit keeping an eye on in the future.
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