Adulthood the Hard Way
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
While coming of age stories are a dime a dozen in Filmdom, they rarely deal with the transition so astutely delineated in Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child.” Here, instead of the clichéd albeit touching saga of an adolescent boy learning a big lesson as he evolves into a teenager, is the unsentimental—but also touching—reality of a twenty- something Miss making the journey into adulthood.
Played by Jenny Slate, she is Donna Stern, a witty, smart and potentially successful comedienne in training who, early on, will be learning the harshness and pain of adding that oh so necessary Pagliacci thing to her professional résumé. Naturally, it’s a man who will administer the rude awakening, and of course she didn’t see it coming. Or did she?
Heretofore things seemed like they were going pretty well. An opening scene at a hip N.Y. comedy club shows her killing the happy crowd with her notably edgy monologue, replete with allusions to private parts and their even more private functions. But whether she noticed it or not, boyfriend is grimacing.
Never mind whether or not he’s worth the tears, second-guessing, world-turned-asunder or drunken binge that follows his admission: The rat has been wrinkling the sheets with Donna’s tall blonde friend. A product of a prosperous demography that can delay the maturing process, she is obviously still a child in some ways, and probably never considered how much character a man would have to possess to put up with her schedule.
Donna’s lovesickness and travail of withdrawal, although physically much less severe but emotionally just as devastating, reminds of Sinatra’s Frankie Machine trying to shake the monkey from his back in “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955). If you’ve been lucky enough to have loved and lost rather than to have never loved at all, you’ll appreciate Miss Slate’s knowing interpretation of this horrid crucible. I’ve been told it’s the exact antithesis of the joy and dizzying buoyancy that comes with falling in love.
We feel bad for the instantly likable Donna Stern, recognizing the innocence we know resides just one nervous scratch beneath her acerbically entertaining surface. She is a product of her times, and as such, a barometer of the socioeconomic forces that have helped shape her.
Interestingly, though, while developing a rooting interest, we are also unavoidably judgmental. Anxious in the hope that she might sidestep life’s inevitable pitfalls, we watch intently, keen to see how she’s going to pull herself out of not only the muck and mire of lost love, but a moral dilemma that compounds her troubles like the dismaying bushwhack of a gut punch.
Providing the cultural background for our Alice in Bewildered Land, Robespierre assures Donna has been properly nurtured by her affable, obviously enlightened, although divorced, parents. Polly Draper is mom, an eminent business professor, while dad, portrayed by Richard Kind, is a successful, dreamy-eyed TV puppeteer who we suspect has fully embraced the flower power wisdom found in most Cat Stevens songs.
Hence, with the dramatis personae’s census form filled out, and the Supreme Court standing by its currently valid resolution not to interfere in such mortal affairs, all characters concerned are ready to confront the film’s central issue. It’s as hot as our topics get. You see, as the good folks during the time of the last civil war liked to euphemistically put it, Donna has cancelled all her social engagements.
Only thing is, she actually trudges forward. Whether it’s because the show must go on, misery loves company or due to her lately alcohol-fueled über rage, after a torturous time of self-confinement, the comic takes her pity plight to the stage. An embarrassed audience laughs nervously…perhaps the only polite reaction to such profound suffering.
Discomforting as it may be, this is her catharsis. The cold fact is, she made her decision immediately. But it’s a bit more complicated. Because it takes two not only to tango but also to weave the proverbial tangled web, meet Jake Lacy’s nicely evoked Max, from Vermont, as white bread as Brooklyn’s Donna is Jewish rye with seeds. Disconcertedly, the rebound beau learns of his newfound flame’s crisis along with the paying customers.
Maybe she should have told him beforehand. But she wasn’t going to change her mind.
The point is that this is a statement film first, and a seriocomic drama second. Firm in its resolve, it is an unapologetic, jagged shard of reality that doesn’t mince emotions. We’re not counting on a happy solution. Nope…it’s about the fortunes and foibles of trying to navigate through this thing we call being human, and as such “Obvious Child” affirms that, regardless of your politics, the path to womanhood is neither simple nor apparent.
“Obvious Child,” rated R, is an A24 release directed by Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy and Polly Draper. Running time: 84 minutes