Jenny Slate Makes a Lasting Impression on us in ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Jenny Slate

We all know Jenny Slate from her brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” and she has since left an impression on us with “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and on episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” But in Gillian Robespierre’sObvious Child,” Slate gives one of the best breakout performances of 2014 which will stay with you long after the movie has ended. As comedian Donna Stern, we watch as her life hits rock bottom after she gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in rapid succession. Then after a one-night stand with a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), she finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion, and it all leads up to the best/worst Valentine’s Day she’s ever had.

Obvious Child movie poster

I was very excited to meet Slate when she arrived for a roundtable interview at the “Obvious Child” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. I told her I came out of the movie wanting to hug her character, and she replied that was great and exactly the way we were supposed to feel (I couldn’t agree more). The movie is advertised as being the first “abortion comedy” ever, but that’s far too simplistic a description. To me, it was about how Donna learns how to empower herself and trust people again after having her heart broken, and Slate felt the same way.

Jenny Slate: It’s not representative of what the film actually does or how it unfolds. I guess, trying to look on the positive side, if people think that’s all that it is when they go and see the film, they will be delighted to see how complex and thoughtful it is and funny. If you think about it as just the story of one woman trying to understand the process of going from passive to active and trying to understand how to make choices you’d think, well why would I try to shy away from that? That’s a human story and I should just tell it.

“Obvious Child” derives its title from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. The discussion about the song led Slate to talk about when she used to ride the subway while she was a college student living in New York. She reminisced about how, when the train went through a tunnel, the window across from her would become a mirror, and this usually happened when she had headphones on.

JS: I remember sophomore year of college I would listen to, on repeat, the “Amelie” soundtrack and just imagine myself as a woman in a movie that was about a woman. It’s pretty interesting that I got to do it. I think a lot of people connected music that way. It makes them feel like they’re in a movie.

In the movie, Slate’s character is a comedian who does a stand-up act at a club in Brooklyn. The way Slate performs Donna’s act, you can’t help but think all her material was improvised, but Slate made it clear those scenes were the result of her collaboration with Robespierre.

JS: Gillian wrote this stand up based off of the style that I perform in; sort of loose storytelling, very instant with the audience, a conversation that’s evolving and not clubby or anything like that. She wrote it, we cut it down, we did some workshopping where I improvised a set based off of what she had written, and she recorded that, rewrote it, and then on the day of the shoot the shooting draft of the film had that stand-up set that we turned into bullet points so that I was not memorized and that it could be natural. You would have the feel of Donna feeling it out, and we talked about it and then I went up and went through these subjects that Gillian had set out and some of them are exact lines of her writing and some of them are lines that came up during it, and she would also call out to me during the shooting and be like, you know, circle back to talking about dirty underwear or whatever. And then I would go back and, during that time of walking backwards, new material would come in. I think if somebody says to me that it’s okay to work and it’s okay to be loose then I go with that. It’s in my nature to be playful and it’s my nature to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the rules, and that’s something I often just have to deal with and work through. You can’t improvise on every job, and you should be good enough at acting that you can say your lines. But for Gillian to say you can be a little looser and for her to be comfortable enough in what she had written to be flexible was an amazing testament to her. We are just a good pair.

One actress who was brought up with much excitement during this interview was Gaby Hoffman who plays Donna’s roommate, Nellie. Hoffman is best known for playing Kevin Costner’s daughter in “Field of Dreams” and for playing Maizy Russell in “Uncle Buck.” The interesting thing is that Slate and Hoffman actually look a lot alike to where you want to see them play sisters in a movie together. As it turns out, Hoffman’s career proved to have a major effect on Slate’s.

JS: I have always wanted to be an actress since I was young and can’t remember anything else. It was my ultimate desire, and she was my age and acting when I was growing up. I used to think I looked like her and was just like, oh I want to be like that girl. And when I got to meet her in my adulthood, I was like totally blown away in general just because I was such a huge fan. After getting past that, the real ultimate moment of just like being totally floored was discovering her personality. She’s very wise, really open and just like really no nonsense. She’s very fearless and I think she sets the bar really high for performance, and I felt that in a good way. I wanted to impress her, and I just think she’s the closest you can get to like a goddess. She’s got that real mythical vibe.

Now many people may say Slate is just playing herself in this movie, but this is the kind of unfair assumption we tend to make about actors in general. We may think we know an actor from reading about them in magazines or seeing them on the countless talk shows on television, but while Slate is a stand-up comedian like Donna, she was quick to point out the differences between herself and her character. Most importantly, she does not expound endlessly on her personal life like Donna does.

JS: I don’t do it. It just never seems right to me, but I’m not Donna. I know my boundaries and I think, although my standup is about like being horny and diarrhea and things like that, I still feel like it’s paired with really nice manners. I think the cornerstone of having nice manners is to have an equal exchange. Someone says how are you, and I say fine how are you, and Donna does not understand boundaries and limits at the beginning of the film. For me, I get it. My relationships are precious and I don’t talk about my husband on stage unless it’s something flattering. But even if it was something flattering that was going to embarrass him, I wouldn’t do it because there’s just too much to talk about.

Seriously, Jenny Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” is one of the best and most moving I saw in 2014, and it’s a must see even for those who, like me, are not fans of romantic comedies. Regardless of how you feel about the Valentine’s Day Donna ends up having, it’s a lot better than the one Slate told us about from her past.

JS: I had a really bad Valentine’s Day one year because I had a really shitty boyfriend who forgot that it was Valentine’s Day, and he gave me his digital camera in a sock. Wow, thanks! Such a bummer, the worst present ever. That’s like a present that a baby would give to somebody. I never wanted a digital camera in general. I don’t care, I don’t like technology. I just wanted some fucking chocolate. Look around you! There’s hearts everywhere! Fucking get it right! Dammit! My husband is so good at Valentine’s Day. He rules at it. No socks.

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‘Obvious Child’ Ranks Among My Favorite Rom Coms of All Time

Obvious Child movie poster

Uh-oh, I think I’m becoming a fan of romantic comedies. For the longest time, I have been avoiding them like the plague as they feature characters whose problems don’t even compare to what I go through, dialogue which makes me cringe in such an incredibly painful way, and acting that is embarrassing and flat. But just as the genre looks to be finally dying out, 2014 brought us movies like “What If” and “The One I Love” which succeed in reinvigorating it to where I got surprised in a way I didn’t expect. But moreover, these movies have provided us with down to earth characters we can actually relate to instead of sneer at in bitterness.

Of all the romantic comedies released in 2014, I doubt I will see one better than “Obvious Child.” It marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it’s a very confident and assured debut as she follows the trials and tribulations of a twenty-something woman whose life hits a low point which leaves her in a depressed funk. It also deals with a very touchy subject in a way both intelligent and very refreshing, and that makes this rom com a brilliantly subversive one.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a comedian and bookstore employee who is about to go through one of the worst periods of her life. “Obvious Child” starts with Donna’s boyfriend dumping her which leaves her utterly devastated, and then she is informed the bookstore she works at will be closing which will leave her out of a job. This leads her sinking into a depressed state which results in one of her worst stand up gigs ever, but on that same night she meets a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy) with whom she strikes up an easy-going conversation. From there, the two of them have a night of fun where Max accidentally farts in Donna’s face, and they end up having sex after an exuberant dancing session to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” a song from which this movie gets its name.

Not long afterwards, Donna discovers this one-night stand has gotten her pregnant, something she is not the least bit prepared for. As a result, she decides to get an abortion but finds she has to wait a few days before the doctors can perform the procedure. During this time, she wonders about whether or not to tell Max about her decision, and the movie chronicles her journey towards the best/worst Valentine’s Day she has ever had.

Many have been describing “Obvious Child” as the first ever abortion comedy, but that description doesn’t do it justice. Yes, abortion is a theme here, but it’s not what this movie is about. The main focus is on how Donna’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time in her life, and it proves to be a journey both rough and, at times, truly hilarious.

Many of us remember Slate from her brief stint on “SNL” where she accidentally let the F-word slip out of her mouth. She left after only season, but she has since made a name for herself on “Parks & Recreations” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” proves to be a huge breakthrough for her, and you just want to hug her after watching this movie. She infuses Donna with a lot of heart and makes you relate to her struggles as life constantly throws an endless number of curveballs in her direction, and we get so emotionally absorbed in Donna’s journey as she faces up to her responsibilities and rises above her misery which threatens to consume her completely. Slate is both warm and funny at the same time, and that’s not always an easy combination to pull off. It’s one of the best performances from an actress I have seen this year.

Slate is also backed up by a terrific supporting cast which features characters who come to reveal things about themselves we wouldn’t otherwise have known. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as Donna’s friend and roommate Nellie, Richard Kind is drolly amusing as Donna’s father Jacob, Polly Draper has some very moving moments as Donna’s mother Nancy, Gabe Liedman is a hoot as everyone’s gay best friend Joey, and David Cross has some hilarious scenes as Sam, a comedian and a guy who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him.

I also have to give Jake Lacy a lot of credit as he makes Max a truly nice guy we never find ourselves snickering at. Roles like these are often very bland and don’t give actors a lot to work with, but Lacy makes you believe Max is the real deal and the kind of significant other we all hope to find in our own lives. Max could have been the most boring and thankless character in “Obvious Child,” but Lacy keeps him from becoming this with a lot of humor and charm.

When it comes to the abortion issue, which has already split people on “Obvious Child” (particularly those who haven’t even bothered to see it), Robespierre handles it in a manner which is actually very refreshing. She’s not out to demonize abortion, but she also doesn’t make light of it either. In this Roe vs. Wade world we have been living in for the past few decades, I’m surprised we haven’t had more movies like this one.

Robespierre has created a truly wonderful film I am very eager to see again soon, and it’s one of the most intelligent rom-coms to come out in some time. “Obvious Child” really left a smile on my face as I walked out of the theater. Regardless of whether or not you have gone through what Donna has, or whether you’re a man or a woman for that matter, you can sympathize with what she goes through as we have all hit a rocky point in our lives. What’s great is how she rises above her problems and becomes a stronger person as a result. Robespierre and company confront the painful moments in these characters lives with a lot of intelligence and warmth, and it’s also really funny. It’s deep, but it also had me laughing a lot.

* * * * out of * * * *

FYI: This review was written shortly before this movie went into wide release.