One of the most prominent tropes in comedy these days is the woman who "goes there." Stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman delivers one-liners about rape and the Holocaust. Girls creator Lena Dunham spends a third of each episode in some state of undress. The leading ladies in Amy Poehler's new TV series Broad City hide marijuana in their nether regions.
And Obvious Child, the indie comedy starring former Saturday Night Life cast member Jenny Slate, opens with Slate's character describing herself as the sexual product of a menorah and '90s pop singer Natalie Imbruglia.
Anything men can do crassly, women can do crasser.
Beneath these women's bare-all presentation, though, is often a very vulnerable person fumbling her way through life. Such is the case in Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre's directorial debut, described as "a romantic comedy about abortion."
Given the tagline, I walked into the screening in Chicago this week expecting to dislike it. Not only because it seemed poised to treat abortion as a minor thing, but also because the trailer featured two characters dancing in their underwear to catchy indie pop. (Unless you are in 2004 and are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or a Jimmy Eat World music video, you can't lead with the hipsters-dancing-in-underwear motif. You just can't.)
But I walked out of the screening wondering what it means to appreciate a story whose moral and spiritual assumptions nonetheless clash with the Christian tradition's, as well as my own.
It first must be said that Obvious Child refers not to an unborn baby but to Donna Stern, a 27-year-old Brooklynite who is thoroughly unprepared for adulthood. Donna works part-time at the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (an actual bookstore in NYC's West Village), drinks a lot, and doesn't know how to file her taxes.
"You're wasting your 780 verbal SAT score telling jokes about diarrhea," says Donna's mother (Polly Draper), a stern business professor who at one point creates an Excel spreadsheet to help Donna consider new job prospects. Her mom is not the most likeable character, but on this point she's right: Shouldn't potty jokes end with adolescence?
After Donna is "dumped up with" by a cheating boyfriend, she has a one-night stand with a kind, gentlemanly Max (Jake Lacy), whom she meets at the bar where she's just bombed a standup routine. Enter the dancing-in-underwear scene, and you can probably guess what Donna finds out three weeks later.
Jenny Slate is best known for her one-year stint on SNL before creating the cute-overload series "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On," as well as playing John Ralphio's sister Mona Lisa on Parks and Recreation. She's fittingly cast here, playing Donna detached and irreverent in one scene, confessional and needy in the next.
"I have a softer side that I'd like to explore in my work," she told Interview magazine. "I had this notion of showing a woman who is both confident enough to go onstage and not let anything be held back, and also what it's like for her in her private time."