Monday, December 8, 2014

"Obvious Child"

Worthy indeed is the goal that Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child sets itself on: To honestly tackle the subject of abortion from a female feminist perspective. Still a taboo subject in an allegedly progressive Obama-era America, abortion’s portrayal on film – in Hollywood or otherwise – is consequently rare. Indeed, aside from made-for-television-or-cable movies, abortion is very rarely made the centerpiece of American films. Whenever the subject is brought up in films such as Juno or Knocked Up, it is quickly evacuated with the same uncomfortable haste with which a show host might display in trying to get a particularly offensive comedian off the stage before the crowd gets too angry. Knocked Up, for all its candid portrayal of relationships and adult immaturities, was too afraid to even mention the word, preferring to instead say that it “rhymes with shmashmortion”. So desperately in need of authenticity in its cinematic depictions is this subject that Obvious Child’s ultimate inability to live up to its own objectives is rendered all the more disappointing.

From the opening credits, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is introduced to the audience as a human avatar of what the film aspires to be: A charismatic, abrasive stand-up comedian who derives her humour from demystifying the female body with scatological jokes about sex and bodily functions based on her own life experiences. Her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) even makes the point to spell out to her – and the viewer – that the greatest thing about her is that she is “unapologetically herself”. Almost every scene in the film’s first 15 minutes seems consciously designed to incite the audience to like and relate to the protagonist: After getting dumped by her cheating boyfriend, she spends the night getting comically drunk and attempting to call him only to get evicted from her flat the following day, forcing her to sleep at her father’s (Richard Kind); when she isn’t being told by her entourage what a brilliant and funny person she is, she’s being chastised for wasting that brilliance. As if to further make twentysomething Americans nod their heads in recognition, she also has to pay off student debts.

It is sufficiently annoying when mainstream films make visible efforts to forcefully obtain their audience’s support of their protagonist; when allegedly independent-minded films intended to provide more realistic and flawed characters soften their blows by embellishing these flaws as elements to be admired through laughter instead of accepted as they are, they demonstrate an unwillingness to take risks that severely impairs their aim.

Aside from the breakup-induced drinking that gets her pregnant during a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy, who looks like a slightly beefed-up Michael Cera), none of the aforementioned issues ultimately matter. Her financial problems are casually mentioned from time to time without getting any more relevant and her parents exist mostly to dispense life advice and comfort at dramatically convenient times. This is one of Obvious Child’s major failings: In its endeavor to subvert abortion clichés, it allows itself to wallow in romantic comedy clichés and ends up losing on both fronts: None of the characters ever break out of the prepackaged set of rules they’ve been assigned: The supportive female best friend, the mother who appears somewhat cold and out of touch but turns out to have more in common with her daughter than the latter suspected, the gay male best friend whose sex life and love life is discussed but never actually proven to exist… These characters have no true individual identity of their own and remain firmly inside their boxes. Nellie does tease the possibility of standing out among them when the topic of her own past abortion is brought up, but never goes through with it.

Indeed, the pinnacle of her characterization comes in the form of an indignant rant following the suggestion that Max might deserve to know about the situation. Asserting the priority of Donna’s needs over those of a man she barely knows, she callously refers to the soon-to-be-aborted fetus as “that fucking thing” and deplores the legislation of women’s vaginas by “a bunch of weird old white men in robes”1. She later reassures Donna that abortion doesn’t hurt apart from a few subsequent vaginal cramps similar to period cramps, and that’s as far as we’ll ever get to know her as a person. As for Max himself, Jake Lacy’s warm performance never manages to transcend his character’s bland predictability. His everyman persona presents opportunities for a broad range of emotions with regards to Donna’s awkward interactions with him, her secrets and the eventual revelation of her situation, but Robespierre squanders the most important of them. Max consistently remains an idealized Nice Guy, whose acceptance of Donna’s pregnancy and plans for abortion is all the more remarkable in its unconvincingness considering she reveals it to him during a stand-up routine for all to hear – echoing the film’s opening, where her public jokes about her boyfriend’s penis and their sex life, all while he was in the audience, accelerated their break-up. Sure, his first reaction is to leave the room but he gets over it the very next day, just in time to accompany her to the abortion clinic where they can start their relationship on a new ground and get a hollow happy ending, obtained with far too much emotional ease and contrivances to be believable. Nobody really got hurt, nobody grew up organically.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the film: Supporting characters appear, a potentially uncomfortable situation is created only to be defused and quickly forgotten. One standout is David Cross’s appearance as a fellow comedian who invites Donna in his car just as Max was coming to see her in the club, setting up the detested bane of romantic comedies that is the third-act breakup. David Cross’s character shows a certain promise: A cynical comedian back from Los Angeles after selling his first pilot who, despite talking to Donna as he would a friend, still makes transparent attempts to seduce her – at one point accidentally-on-purpose spilling wine on his shirt then returning with a woman’s camisole that, combined with his rather full beard and hipster glasses, makes him look like a cross-dressing gay Bear. He makes passes at her in a joking tone that, rather than being creepy, hints at something theoretically interesting. His words and actions appear motivated less by genuine lust than by a desire to act upon a perceived lack of self-worth. Yet Robespierre steadfastly refuses to make the scene uncomfortable to watch, choosing instead to use comedy as a way to deflect pain and embarrassment rather than transcend it. Donna leaves and David Cross is never seen again. Drained of all its potential, the scene is reduced to little more than a time-filling plot contrivance.

Limited as it is by its reluctance to make the audience uncomfortable, the courage of Gillian Robespierre’s screenplay limits itself to making abortion its main subject matter, taking an openly pro-choice stance on it and including explicit jokes and discussions of women’s body parts and their functions. When it comes to more subtle and potentially more frightening areas of human behaviour and feelings, such as the process that led Donna to realize her own immaturity and inaptitude at child-rearing, Robespierre plays it disappointingly, depressingly safe. The conventionality of her writing is matched by her directorial choices: Jump-cut montages of Donna getting drunk or writing on a bench, postcard-shots of New York as a guitar plays trite indie music on the soundtrack, a color palette comprised almost exclusively of warm colors… Less evident but all the more damning is the poverty of Robespierre’s visual grammar: the majority of her shots are static and framed up to the characters’ waists or chests with the occasional wider, transitory shots. Lack of frame diversity isn’t necessarily in and of itself a huge problem in narrative film if the shots are composed, assembled and edited in such a way that there is always something aside from the general events going on both within them and between them. In Obvious Child’s case, the scenes are filmed and edited with a generic predictability that is completely at odds with both its subject and Robespierre’s intended treatment of it. Only Donna and Max’s reunion in the library stands out as an example of Robespierre exploring a visual element – Donna sitting in a cardboard box – to its visual potential. As a whole, the film looks and feels like a ready-made assembly line product with the Sundance stamp of approval on it. It serves as proof, along with such similarly unadventurous fare such as 50/50 and Robot & Frank, that much of the so-called “independent” American film industry is really just a lower-budgeted Hollywood with the same plastic ideas and emotions.

Thankfully, there are still remains of what the project could have looked like had it blossomed into the acidic flower of subversion it was supposed to be, and most of them are contained in Jenny Slate’s spot-on performance. Although most of Donna’s stand-up jokes aren’t exceptionally funny (and Robespierre’s attempts to convince the viewer otherwise through shots of the audience laughing and smiling in appreciation and support do nothing to change that), Slate imbues her with a disarmingly self-conscious corporal expressiveness that communicates all her character’s feelings and impulses spontaneously. Her nasal Brooklyn tones counter the script’s excessive attempts at garnering sympathy by eliciting just the right amount of annoyance. Whether her lines are funny or not, Slate never tries too hard to make them so. In fact, it is in her more dramatic scenes that Robespierre’s direction manages to build up enough strength to expose a few moments of truth to the screen. Would to Heaven that she could have maintained that course for more scenes; perhaps a truly interesting comedy about abortion could have come out of it in spite of the screenplay’s inadequacies.
1If Nellie was referring to the Supreme Court, that’s not quite accurate: As of 2014, of its nine justices, one is an old black man, one is a middle-aged Hispanic woman, another is a forty-four year-old white woman and another still is an old white woman.

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