OBVIOUS CHILD arrives in theatres with a full head of buzzy steam and plenty of think pieces about its tackling of a certain hot button issue. Believe me, I should know, as I wrote one myself. It might be easy to get swept up by it all and hang your hopes on CHILD being THE film of the year. It’s not. It just isn’t. It is, in reality, mostly a low key romantic comedy.
And that is ok.
It is more than ok, in fact, because what CHILD does well, it does very well.
First, the cast is strong top to button. Jenny Slate shows a heretofore undemonstrated range as the lead, Donna Stern. She is often funny but finds ways to be funny in different ways, in ways that indicate what else is going on with her. Her funny with Max (Jake Lacy), her one night stand that might blossom into more, is different within itself depending on the situation and different than her funny with her friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and Joey (Gabe Liedman) which, in turn, is different than how she is funny with her dad (Richard Kind) and so on. It is a nicely subtle way to portray someone who deals with discomfort, pain, embarrassment, and so on through humor without her always burying the needle on the striving to make others laugh. And when she steps away from that defense mechanism, she remains effective. She, for lack of a better way to put it, emotes well. It is an underplayed, lived in performance (with the exception of a drunken phone call scene that I’ll get to later).
Far and away my favorite marriage of character and actor, though, is Joey. Liedman takes limited lines and just owns the screens. He is not chewing scenery but he is undeniable. His standup work as well is the best (including Slate’s) in the movie. Leidman is mostly a writer on shows like Inside Amy Schumer and The Kroll Show, but I suspect he will find himself with less and less time to write very soon.
Even the “weak” links, Donna’s often harsh mom (Polly Draper) and the fairly underwritten Max, never seem flat. There’s less for them to do, but they acquit themselves well with what’s there and bring forth realistic characters. Max in particular is redeemed by his chemistry with Donna’s and the genuine sense of simple, straightforward goodness Lacy imbues his performance with.
Only David Cross is unable to make things work but that is a plot problem more than anything else. His scene is long, ill-pace, and tells us nothing more about Donna and even less about Cross’s Sam. He’s a comedian that might prompt a few #YesAllWomen tweets and his time on-screen grinds everything in the film to a squealing, unpleasant halt.
The movie itself takes place in a very small world, almost hermetically sealed and yet feels unmoored from any particular time or space. With the exception of technological cues, it could’ve been set in 2013, 2003, or 1993 New York City. That said, there is an appealing meandering quality within that world. It never feels rigid despite the fact that there is never a moment where the movie acknowledges the world outside the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The picture’s visual palette and shot selection is limited but never to the point of distraction. Perhaps writer/director Gillian Robespierre could have been a little more adventurous with how she chose to capture the action, but that’s not where this movie’s efforts lie.
The one place the film does occasionally fall down is when it runs up against romantic comedy tropes. Especially ones involving the telephone. Try as she might, Robespierre cannot inject a new angle into the “endless voicemails on a past love’s phone while drunk” or the “calling someone you wronged trying to get them to pick up” tropes. As a result, especially given how earlier the former occurs and at what length, the movie feels creaky in those moments. Slate is game but that is a stone without any blood.
Otherwise, though, the picture bounces around on its own energy, evading clichés by largely acting as though it was not a romantic comedy. It surely is, but it just is not that worried about proving it and is a better effort because of it. Without its frank depiction of abortion, I doubt it would be gaining the kind of notice it is, but it would still be worthy of attention.