I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm in kind of an emotional crisis right now.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m in kind of an emotional crisis right now.

In the new documentary about Roger Ebert, we begin by hearing him give the following bit of wisdom:

We all are born with a certain package; we are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised…we’re kind of stuck inside that person. The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize with other people. For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears.

It helps us to identify with these people who are sharing this journey with us.

I can’t say I ever thought of film that way prior to hearing that speech. That said, if ever there was a film that proves Roger right, it’s OBVIOUS CHILD.

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a struggling comedian. Her act is filled with a great deal of honesty and self-deprecating humour. It’s the sort of material that can sometimes teeter on the edge of “Too Much Information”, but Donna always seems to know where the line is and how not to cross it. Well, usually. More on that in a bit. One night at the end of her set, her boyfriend Ryan dumps her in the bar bathroom. Ryan claims to have fallen for someone else, and subjects Donna to a dumping that is continually interrupted by glances at a cell phone.

This break-up sends Donna for a bit of a spin, filled with the expected amount of drunkenness and desperate voicemails. Not content to leave things there, Donna goes back on-stage the next night to do a set, this time a disastrous one full of self-loathing. That line Donna usually doesn’t cross? On this night she couldn’t find it with Google Maps. Through a neat co-incidence, Donna is approached that night by a fetching young man named Max (Jake Lacy). Max missed Donna’s set, so he has no idea what sort of state she’s in. After a few drinks and a few laughs, the two end up going back to Max’s together.

The two don’t really connect after that, despite having a fun time with each-other. A few weeks later though, fate throws Donna a curve. Turns out she’s pregnant with Max’s baby. While her friends Nellie and Joey (Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman) are there to guide her through her time of need, Donna is a bit of a mess. While she knows that she doesn’t want to keep it, she doesn’t know how to tell her parents or how to tell Max. Her struggle to find her balance during such a difficult walk down life’s path is the crux of the film…and the basis of one fantastic romantic comedy.

Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy

OBVIOUS CHILD scores huge marks right out of the gate for its pure audacity. The story wants us to spend ninety minutes with someone who is feeling very messed-up, which is a difficult proposition on its own. When we come into contact with people who are demonstrably feeling messed-up, the tendency is to back away and worry about our own problems. Most of us try everything we can not to get mixed-up in the drama. With Donna though, Jenny Slate taps into a place with the character that brings out a sweet pathos in us. Donna make bargains with herself that rely on signs from the universe, or she tries to diffuse her misery with awkward humour. They are genuine moments that feel less awkward and pathetic than they do more sweetly sad and confused. Where a less nuanced approach would have us saying we gotta go do a thing, OBVIOUS CHILD has us offering Donna a blanket and a cup of tea without hesitation.

The film’s next piece of audacity comes from the way it strives for plausibility. The romantic-comedy genre gets a bad rap a lot of times in the way its worst titles focus on meatheaded men and shrill women as they stumble through an awkward situation that could be solved with a five-minute-conversation. Life doesn’t happen that way. Life is filled with career-driven women, and nice guys with dopey charm. They meet, they date, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Never is it filled with as many sweeping gestures, dreadful embarrassments, or wild misunderstandings as many rom-coms would have you believe. In reality, conversations are sorta awkward, such as the first time Donna tries to tell Max about her pregnancy. In reality, our friends don’t have the answers but will try to find one with us anyway, such the counsel we see Nellie and Joey offer Donna. And in reality, even our biggest decisions involve a lot of uncertainty and a lot of reassurance, as is the case with Donna during the entire second half of this film.

Even if we’ve never been in any of these situations ourselves, OBVIOUS CHILD unfolds in a way that makes us feel like we have…and with that, engages us so much the better.

Where OBVIOUS CHILD is at its most audacious is in places I don’t want to spell out, since they arrive in the film’s final act. I’ll tread lightly here since I believe their power comes from arriving at them organically.

The first bit comes in the third of three stand-up routines we watch Donna do. We’ve seen her do a set that scored well with her audience, and another one that completely bombed. When she takes the mic the third time, we have no idea what to expect – in part because her failure is so fresh in our head, and in part because of when she takes the mic to do it. In this scene – a scene that will stand up in December as one of the year’s best – we are rapt. It’s here where OBVIOUS CHILD lets loose with some of the most cuttingly honest writing ever dropped into comedy. It’s here where Slate arms herself with those arrows of wit, and fires them in for bullseye after bullseye. Most stand-up routines come with a narrow margin of error; the margin in this routine is a razor’s edge. Undeterred, every bit of the scene is sure-footed…from the direction to the writing to the acting of all involved.

The final bit comes with the conversations and interactions between Max and Donna in the film’s final moments. These are the scenes where there is the most to lose – the ones where we have spent 80 minutes building up two people and the predicament they are in and wait with bated breath for the payoff. It’s these moments in life where the people who drift in-and-out of our orbit prove their metal. These are the moments where confidence falters and people run. These are the moments where nerves turn to anger and we lash out for all the wrong reasons. These are also the moments where we find strength previously untapped, and we become rocks for one-another to lean on. So how does a fictional film handle this moment? With a great deal of honesty, pain, and hope.

Any time a film has the guts to be authentic, it’s a reason to celebrate. While movies can serve as escapism and a way to get away from the sorts of predicaments Donna finds herself in, they can also be a mirror. They can remind us that even when we feel like we are at our most-mixed-up, and cannot possibly come up with “the right answer”, that we aren’t the first person to feel that way…nor will we be the last. OBVIOUS CHILD excels at helping us understand that. It’s with that – with great empathy – that the film stays with us as something warm, caring, and very special.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on OBVIOUS CHILD.