Romantic comedy Obvious Child takes on weighty subject

With the indie comedy “Obvious Child,” star Jenny Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre have made a bracingly honest film about a standup comic who decides to have an abortion.

Both women are Jewish, as is the film’s lead character, Donna Stern.

Jenny Slate stars in “Obvious Child” photo/a24 films

But Slate and Robespierre don’t see the frankness of their film or of its main character — who draws her act from her personal life — as uniquely Jewish.

“When I think about why the humor is so open, it’s just Donna’s nature from birth,” says Slate, who has had recurring TV roles on “House of Lies,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Bob’s Burgers” and was on “Saturday Night Live” for one season.

A boisterous yet heartfelt hunk of 20-something angst, populated by self-aware, hyperverbal characters still seeking their place in the world, “Obvious Child” opened June 13 in San Francisco and Berkeley following its local premiere in the recent San Francisco International Film Festival.

The film pivots on Donna’s decision to have an abortion; a conversation she has with her mother (played by Polly Draper) provides a key scene. “Obvious Child” is that rare movie in which parents and adult children communicate with and understand each other.

But that neat touch likely will be overlooked amid Donna’s brutally candid and self-critical quips — she uses material from her life, including her unexpected pregnancy, in her standup act — and the film’s willingness to deal directly with a touchy subject.

“It’s not an agenda movie in any way,” Robespierre insists. “It’s a romantic comedy with a modern look at a modern woman’s experience. One woman, who we love.”

Robespierre and Slate want “Obvious Child” to generate laughs as well as serious discussion.  “We are excited for any conversations that it ignites,” Robespierre says, “whether it’s about the right to choose and women’s reproductive rights, or whether it’s about our Jewishness, our heritage.”

Robespierre grew up in New York City. She didn’t have a bat mitzvah, she says, because “I had dyslexia when I was little so my mother thought I needed to tackle English before Hebrew.”

That may sound like a joke, but it’s not. Slate, originally from Milton, Mass., supplies the humor with her childhood memories of Passover.

“We had really, really big seders,” she recalls. “My grandfather would read them and it was the best, and I would get super, super scared waiting for Elijah. When people would sing ‘Eliahu’ I would have a straight-up meltdown under the table crying so hard.”

“Obvious Child” is playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the California in Berkeley (R for language and sexual content; 83 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.