I’m so late to the discussion about the moderately miraculous Jenny Slate in Gillian Robespierre‘s Obvious Child that I feel a little foolish bringing it up. It took me two weeks to write this piece because I felt so conflicted about this. But Slate is so alive and extra-dimensional and spunky with the right blend of vulnerability and brilliance with sprinklings of depression and self-destruction…I was floored. I still am. I asked about doing a phoner with her a week ago — here’s the mp3.
Everyone saw Obvious Child 11 months ago at Sundance ’14 or when it opened last June. I didn’t fucking see it until two weeks ago, and I knew right away I’d been a complete putz for not making a greater effort. Because Slate’s performance did something that more than a few current award-level performances haven’t. She woke me up and made me want more.
Slate plays Donna Stern, a Brooklyn-residing bookstore employee and stand-up comedienne. She’s in her late 20s or early 30s, and with the balls to just follow whatever’s on her mind when doing her act, which is kind of free-formish and scattershot. She’s less of a funny lady who “tells jokes” than a performance artist who’s sometimes funny and sometimes not, but she’s always riffing about her life. Right away I was saying to myself “okay, this woman is obviously wide open and super-vulnerable, and she’s either going to die of a broken heart or she’s going to rocket into fame but she’s not middle-of-the-road steady or flinty. She’s a bit shaky. But who isn’t?
Obvious Child begins with Slate being abruptly dumped by a vaguely heavy-set boyfriend (a guy I never would’ve fucked if I’d been a girl…guy’s a real beast with a mopey personality), which results in ten or twelve minutes worth of gloom and over-drinking and counseling. And then ten or twelve minutes later she meets a really cool guy, Max (Jake Lacy), whom she takes home and fucks….fine. She soon after realizes he’s gotten pregnant by Max. Pivot point.
The rest of the film isn’t about Donna’s indecision about her condition (she wants an abortion) or about Max finding out and persuading her to marry him and have the kid, God forbid. It’s about Donna’s reluctance to tell Max that she’s pregnant, and being unable to trust in whatever his reaction might be, despite indications that he’s a relatively stable, nice, fair-minded guy.
Donna comes very close, in fact, to losing Max over emotional dodging and avoidance issues. She winds up spilling the news on-stage, in fact, with Max in the audience, which of course throws him. Donna sort of lucks out at the end, and there was a part of me that didn’t believe Max would show up with flowers as she’s having the abortion done or just before or after…not remembering.
But Slate brings it home. Her performance reminded me of something important, in fact, which is that a performance can’t just be “good” or skillful or intense. It has to be interesting — it has to pull you in. It has deliver a certain intrigue. It has to warm you, turn you on, open the spigots, make you want to feel and know more. Chops aren’t enough.
In this sense it hit me that Slate’s honed-to-the-bone performance in Obvious Child is better — more engaging, more affecting, more rocket-fuelish — than Julianne Moore‘s hot-shit performance in Still Alice. I really mean this. Side by side, emotion by emotion, performance by performance, Slate’s Sarah is more alive and invested and crackling.
Obviously Moore is going to win the Best Actress Oscar on 2.22.15. We all get that. Not because she’s drop-to-your-knees amazing in Still Alice, which is what the Oscar will ostensibly be about, but for three reasons. One, the fact that her Alice performance as a woman coping with Alzheimer’s is sad, affecting and highly skillful. Two, the fact that she’s wrecked and flailing in David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars — a performance that really lifted me out of my seat. And three, the fact that she’s been delivering punchy, high-octane performances for over 20 years now, and now is her moment in the sun.
But watching Moore in Still Alice is more than a bit of a chore. Once her character starts showing Alzheimer’s symptoms she and her costars have nowhere to go but down. She’s stuck in that deterioration, and so are we. The movie is therefore something to get through while Obvious Child is something that pulls you in and turns a key and opens you up and has you pulling for stuff to happen. I’d rather see a movie about movement and choices and possibilities than one about a person’s mind turning into mulch. Later.
Here, again, is the interview I did with Slate. It felt a bit awkward. I spent way too much time apologizing for not seeing Obvious Child earlier. Sometimes I suck at interviews, and other times I’m not so bad.
From the Wiki page: “Obvious Child has its 2014 Sundance Film Festival on 1.17.14. A Kickstarter campaign to help send the film to Sundance was created by the director on 12.13.13, earning a total of $37,214 by January 14, 2014. Independent film distributor A24 picked up the film for an undisclosed ‘low seven figure’, and gave the film a theatrical release starting June 2014. International rights were picked up by The Exchange.”
Slate and Lacy are supported by Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Paul Briganti, Cindy Cheung and Stephen Singer.