Obvious Child and Reclaiming the Rom-ComPosted: June 7, 2014
For all of my full-throated defense of genre cinema, there is one genre that I still continue to dismiss, and that’s the romantic comedy. While the rom-com has been no more corporatized or reduced to formula than any other genre, it is still relegated to second-class status by even the most open-minded of cinephiles, myself included. And it’s that easy dismissal of the genre that leads me to describe the likes of Obvious Child along the lines of, “Well yeah it uses rom-com tropes, but it’s so much more than that” (something which I was indeed doing as recently as five minutes ago). Which is a totally unfair reaction to have, and ends up being needlessly dismissive of the genre as a whole. Obvious Child is a film with a great deal of depth, nuance and maturity, but it is a romantic comedy above all else, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The first question, of course, is where does my negative opinion of rom-coms come from? I’ve certainly seen plenty of good ones in my time (When Harry Met Sally, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, etc) so why would my opinion continue to be so close-minded? For the most part, I think it’s a mixture of (poor) presentation and (lack of) exposure. When I hardly watch any good rom-coms, and when I’m constantly being bombarded with ads for the likes of The Ugly Truth, I find it incredibly easy to treat the genre at large as bullshit. But to be honest, there’s probably a little bit of lingering preteen misogyny from when I was younger and my reaction to rom-coms was “Ewww, girly movie!”, which is obviously a poor place to start any sort of critical analysis.
And this is where movies like Obvious Child come in. Rather than just follow the formula in the most rote, uninspired and contrived ways, it does what the best genre cinema does by applying its own voice to the formula to provide depth and sincerity to the story and characters. It finds just the right places to subvert or evade the trappings of the formula without abandoning the parts of it that work, creating a film that is both familiar and emotionally resonant. Like the best examples of the genre, both indie and mainstream, it is about much more than just girl-and-guy-fall-for-each-other, and really just captures a moment of growth in the protagonist’s life.
In the case of Obvious Child, that moment of growth is Donna’s (Jenny Slate) twentysomethings, and all the anxieties and (ir)responsibilities that come part-and-parcel with that time of life. It shows how your parents seem to think all of your problems are so easy to solve because they’ve figured everything out already, and how frustrating that can be… but the reason they think that is because they’ve been through things too, and know what it’s like. It shows that even with the right chemistry, there are all kinds of difficulties that might make a relationship fail… but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t open up to someone. This movie perfectly captures how it can feel like everything is going wrong at once, like life is dumping everything in your lap, but that having the right people in your life makes it that much easier.
Obvious Child captures all these elements with a great deal of honesty and grace, and a big part of that is the sort of humor it employs. Rather than have a bunch of contrived and absurd plot beats, the film just puts a bunch of naturally funny characters (and performers) in real situations together and lets them breathe. Essentially it’s the sort of humor that reminds you of bullshitting with your friends, which is well-justified in the story because Donna is a standup comedian, and humor is clearly her defense against hardship. It also doesn’t hurt that the whole cast give great performances that never feel broad or surface-level, and makes everything feel like just one specific episode in Donna’s life.
When you have elements like that in play, in any kind of film, it’s easy to steer clear of lazy genre stereotypes. But at the same time, having that clear-cut genre framework to build on (and react to) is an invaluable resource to a filmmaker, and one that writer/director Gillian Robespierre makes great use of here. Obvious Child, in addition to being a funny and touching film, is also a great reminder that the romantic comedy genre is just as capable of nuance and originality as any other. And maybe we (or at least I) should stop being so surprised by that fact, and start seeking out the sorts of movies that accomplish it… starting with Obvious Child.