A fresh-faced, faux-messy romantic comedy with a refreshingly economic take on the usual meet-cute / separation crisis / resolution arc, Obvious Child is like many tales birthed in purportedly edgy Brooklyn. Yes, it spends its time mostly in Williamsburg’s creative demimonde and the operative comedic style is layered in irony like so many smothering quilts. But the story itself, once you get past the frank talk about abortion and bodily functions, is just as much love at first sight as a pastel-colored confection starring Katherine Heigl and set across the river in a midtown fashion magazine. Only the soundtrack is better, there’s three times as many solid laughs, and it’s about 20 blessed minutes shorter.
The late-twenties arrested development case getting spectacularly dumped at the start of the film is Donna (the brilliant Jenny Slate, who should hopefully be able to name her project after this). A comedian who works most nights at the same Brooklyn bar, Donna’s MO is straight confessional oversharing interlaced with Sarah Silverman raunch. Unlike most comics one sees in movies, Donna carries her set with aplomb, and only collapses after getting dumped. A stretch of moping, “light stalking,” and championship-level red wine slugging follows. Then Donna bumps into Max (Jake Lacy), the guy who most of the audience is going to spend the rest of the movie wanting her to get together with. They talk, they drink, they drink some more, they go to bed, she sneaks out in the morning.
A few weeks later, Donna discovers she’s pregnant and decides to get an abortion. On Valentine’s Day. She cadges advice from her support network — brisk and busy mother (Polly Draper), best-buddy dad (Richard Kind), powerfully wise roommate Nellie (a fantastically spiky Gaby Hoffman), and gay best friend (Gabe Liedman). Although each of the characters are finely crafted and unique individuals, their diagrammatically perfect alignment and unending supply of unquestioning support is one of the film’s few false notes.
Of better stock is Donna’s potential love interest. Compared to Donna’s relentlessly analytical self-doubt, Max is a 90-proof good guy whose trying-to-keep-up sense of humor and appreciation of Roberto Bolano just barely keeps him from coming off as absolutely shallow. Lacy’s crinkly aw-shucks Vermont-boy demeanor, just a couple clicks shy of saccharine, reads as winningly sincere and an fitting complement to Slate’s New York armor plating. The two of them make a good fit from the start, with writer/director Gillian Robespierre wisely not wasting any time on manufactured opposites-attract nonsense and a minimum of effort on the machinations involved in keeping them apart until the final grand romantic gesture. Her interests thankfully lie more in the building of characters and in stitching a comic framework to hang some of the weightier material on. (Surprisingly, she neither over- or underplays Donna’s struggle with getting an abortion. It’s treated as just one more thing for an easily overburdened young adult to contend with; not something to be brushed off, but also not a calamity.)
What keeps Obvious Child as fresh as it is, after all, isn’t the plot. Again, the combination of chaotically blurting intimacies and baroque emotional avoidance strategies will be familiar to anybody who has been watching movies about twentysomethings since the early-1990s at least. In addition to the rat-a-tat of one-liners (“I like my men the way I like my coffee .. very weak and bitter”), Robespierre’s confident direction avoids the pandering insecurity of many romantic comedies, not feeling the need to pressure the audience with manufactured quirk or force-fed adorability. Both Slate and Lacy wear their likability lightly, trusting that as long as their characters are keeping each other entertained, the audience will be as well.