Greatish Performances #53

#53 — Jenny Slate as Donna Stern in Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014)

When Gillian Robespierre developed her feature directorial debut, Obvious Child, she had Jenny Slate in mind for the lead role of Donna, a woman whose drunken canoodling with a new acquaintance results in an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. To a degree, the part is tailored to Slate, most clearly in the choice to make the Donna an aspiring standup comedian. Given the tendency to measure acting difficulty by the distance a performer must roman from themselves — in appearance, in profession, in accent, and so on — having Slate play a peddler of on-stage snark can obscure the complexity of the task before her and the remarkable delicacy she brings to her layered portrayal.

In the most reductive description of the film, Obvious Child is about the main character’s choice to get an abortion and the occasionally bumpy journey she goes on in the process. Because the medical procedure remains a flashpoint of political contention all too eagerly exploited by bullies of the right who count on Democrats shrinking from the argument, movies tend to the topic of abortion in one of two ways: squeamishly or with monomaniacal focus. Robespierre lands in a more honest middle ground. This moment of decision is undoubtedly a major part of Donna’s life, but there’s little indication that she’s uncertain about her choice or even has particular misgivings about it. For a variety of reasons, including financial constraints and an awareness of her own shaky preparedness level for demands of adulthood far more basic than rearing another human being, Donna is not ready to be a mother. She knows it, and she proceeds accordingly.

What’s interesting about the film’s story, and conveyed by Slate’s intricate acting, is the way the pregnancy — the need to book time in a clinic in the first place — is representative of the ways in which Donna is lost. In the scene in the physician’s office where Donna confirms the pregnancy, and quickly asserts her choice to have an abortion, Slate shows every roil of emotion that zooms through the character. She doesn’t just show the intensity with which Donna is thinking about her predicament, but somehow manages, through sheer expressiveness, to signal the contours of those thoughts. As if palpably present, it’s clear that Donna is thinking through the faulty decisions that brought her to this point and processing the need, and her reluctance, to share this new with others in her life.

I’m undoubtedly projecting, seeing what I expect in that moment, but I don’t arrive at the conclusion arbitrarily. Slate wears the character’s emotions like a flashy outfit all the way through the film. A sardonic wisecracker, Donna meets nearly every encounter with dexterous thinking expressed through verbal jabs. The character’s push-and-pull approach to reckoning with the unexpected turn her life mirrors every other skirmish: with her friends, her parents, with the restless crowd at the comedy club as she works through her personal tumult at the microphone. In the role, Slate demonstrates a real gift for portraying the place where internal emotional processing couples with external expression of feeling like noisy, dangerous boxcars.

The simple route in Obvious Child is to play the incidents Donna clicks through, meeting each scene with little more consideration than its own context. The film is sharply written (the screenplay is co-credited to Robespierre, Karen Maine, and Elisabeth Holm) and most scenes have their own clear hook, so that method of building the performance would be sound. Slate instead is always informed by the full person of Donna, her whole history — all the indignities and small celebrations that are at least partially of her own creation — weighing on each moment, whether she’s relaxing into being or eyeing the exit. Although the part was quite literally made for her, Slate doesn’t go easy. She makes, and meets, a greater challenge.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City
#50 — Lee Grant in The Landlord
#51 — Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut
#52 — Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus

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