Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
Life is not a scripted event.
My boyfriend — a man who, like Doris Day once said of Clark Gable, is “as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be” — rattled me with those six words a few months back. It was like he — someone never not the lighthouse in the fog, ever always wrapped in yellow bliss while the world blackens by the second, as if he holds an innocence everyone else lost years ago — had kept that gumdrop of poignancy in his candy-jar head and pulled it out when I least wanted to hear it but most needed to.
See, I love plans. I live for an end date, hunger for step-by-steps, only feel a semblance of peace in my personal boxing ring when I can anticipate an imagined opponent’s next move. Plans give me pep talks (“You’re fine, you’re good. Only six months until the next phase. Joy is on its way.”), prep me for bob-and-weave walks, and more than all, bring purpose. “Why idle in go-with-the-flow, take-it-as-it-comes, all-chains-unkink-themselves-in-time complacency when you can stay three steps ahead even yourself by mapping it all out, condensing your goals and hopes and want-to-dos into slides fit for a Kodak carousel?” I’d think.
Because life is not a scripted event.
Call it fate, or chalk it up to coincidence, that a tickling in my head this week told me to spend a few hours with Obvious Child, a film that encapsulates the rousing and requiring-self-reflection sentiment with which my partner hit me a few months ago, when I felt my toes curling over the lip of a mental spiral’s first loop and feared I’d drown in my own body if I didn’t discover exactly What I Was Gonna Do Next.
Brought to the big screen (in her directorial bloody debut!) by writer-director Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child fixes its gaze on aspiring (and she’s getting there, she swears) comedian Donna Stern, played by the decidedly not stern Jenny Slate. Donna bursts in a billion tiny beams when she’s on stage: Microphone in hand, she spreads her cards out in an unapologetic fan and leaves nothing off-limits. Her comedy is confessional (just how dirty is her underwear, how awkward her sexual encounters, how complicated her current relationship?) and it cracks with the good kind of cringe.
From the peripherals, Donna is a dynamo, equipped with a foul mouth, no filter, and a penchant for punctuating jokes with X-rated last lines. More closely up, she’s in danger: The trouble in treating the stage as a sacrament stall is that more often than not, the priest behind the latticed window is a group of beer-tispy strangers who suddenly know all the intimate nuances of your life and all the secrets of the people who belong to it — like Donna’s boyfriend (Paul Briganti), who ends their relationship after he realizes she’ll never stop bringing what happens between them behind closed doors into dimly-lit bars and comedy clubs for locals to guffaw at. The world takes yet another swing at the now near-hysterical Donna when she’s let go from Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (a for-real store, I promise).
Down but not out, Donna fixes to, well, fix the mess she’s found herself in. When she snags a rebound in sweet-faced nice guy Max (Jake Lacy), the ubiquitous one-night stand ensues, but then the other, this time really unexpected, shoe drops: Donna learns she’s pregnant.
What little Donna did have scrawled out in a Life Script Draft gets sent through a paper shredder. Faced with nothing more than the blankness of her future and the little plus sign on her pregnancy test, Donna schedules a Valentine’s Day abortion. She may be more uncertain than ever about what she’ll get from life, but she knows a pregnancy and a child that results from it isn’t on her want list. She relays this decision to Max in the only manner she knows how — couching it in a comedy set so people he’s never met before can share in his sweaty surprise — and seeks the shoulder of her badass best friend and roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) to cry on.
We watch as the woman who owns all her chaos through comedy stumbles toward maturity and freedom in a way that’s both obnoxious and intoxicating, and witness the film that’s been wrongfully billed as “That Abortion Movie” swell with coming-of-age honesty without once preaching or pandering or proving that one side of spectrum is right and the other wrong. What Robespierre gets so wonderfully right with Obvious Child is that she’s created a cocktail of spontaneity and carefulness; the heart of it all is just as much saturated with Brooklyn beauty as it is political commentary, and neither are heavy-handed or schmaltzy. That Obvious Child gets its audience talking about tough topics is only a symptom of its intimate, truthful, fantastically paced story — and not the other way around, as some may have been led to believe.
Obvious Child is, in equal measure, as sanguine as any directorial debut (male or female) I’ve seen and as special as a some of my one-in-a-few-hundred favorites. Its subtleties, its sparkles, its hapless antics, and its muted hopefulness make for a movie that proves you can never predict the trajectory your time on Earth will choose. It’s for those dozens of small elements that Obvious Child ultimately serves as an unconventional, warmly colored reminder that life is at its scariest when you can’t flip to the next act in your script to see what happens next, but that’s when it’s at its most special, too.