Jenny Slate (“Gifted”) cries a lot in “Obvious Child.” My sister makes fun of me because I have a running list of the best crying faces in film (at the top is Rooney Mara in “The Social Network”), and she reminds me that the ability to cry on camera doesn’t automatically meet the criteria for a good actor.
One of my biggest pet peeves, actually, is when actors drool for their big crying scene, making a show out of the spittle and snot running down their face, like they’re silently hoping this scene makes the cut for their Best Supporting Actor reel. I think it’s the pendulum swinging back from when vaudeville-era stars would have single tears rolling down their faces so as not to muddle their makeup or when that one director told Jessica Alba to “cry pretty.” Either way, it just feels really performative — when we’re watching a film, we’re not supposed to see the actor performing, we’re just supposed to see the character existing.
Slate plays the lead Donna in Gillian Robespierre’s (“Landline”) directorial debut, and she doesn’t ugly cry. We follow her as she stumbles her way through a new relationship and pregnancy after being cheated on by her now ex-boyfriend. She cries so much — when she’s waiting outside her ex’s house, when she’s at an abortion clinic, when she’s lying in her mother’s bed — and, because of that, it’s become as natural as scratching an itch or tucking her hair behind her ear.
Donna doesn’t ugly cry because she’s grieving her relationship. The tears roll down her face easily, with no restraint left, because she’s just living through these awful things that keep happening. She doesn’t have the strength anymore to hold back tears when she lost her job, got cheated on and didn’t know how she was going to pay for her abortion.
I love how even though this movie is a romantic comedy, at times it feels deeply sad. I love how they portray the arduous, non-linear process of repairing Donna’s life: visiting family, drinking, performing stand-up comedy. I love how winter is an integral part of the backdrop: Valentine’s Day ironically falling on the coldest day of the year, running out of a bar into a freezing night looking for someone, listening to the rattle of your old radiator. It’s my comfort movie when I’m depressed and miss the sun.
There’s this scene where her boss says, “Change is good, Donna.” And she says, “Man, that’s like, the rudest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
It’s just an iconic quarter-life crisis film.
We need more sad romances with happy endings. For all the silent crying and worrying in this movie, it’s still so, so romantic.
I have this theory that pre-coital scenes (and post-coital, like the Magic 8 Ball scene in “Good Will Hunting”) could be better utilized in film, and not just a cut to candles as soon as they start making out to keep the PG rating in a sexless Marvel movie. Donna and Max, her one-night stand (Jake Lacy, “High Fidelity”), have an impromptu drunken dance scene to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” and it’s so heartbreakingly beautiful that it breaks my heart. They’re goofy and visibly sweaty and laughing into each kiss — and it’s just so tender it makes me insane.
While romantic scenes like when Max warms up Donna’s butter for her are really incredible, the greatest part of “Obvious Child” is its deep understanding and appreciation of love in all its forms. Platonic, familial, self-love — it means so much to me to see Donna have a nice dinner with her parents or put her head in her roommate’s lap. And Richard Kind (“Inside Out”) is a treasure as Donna’s father. When he says, “Creative energy can come from the lowest point in your life,” it just makes me wish he was my dad.
I rewatched it recently, and I forgot how funny it is, actually. So much of it feels so poignant to me, even when Max brings flowers to the abortion clinic like some kind of Georgia O’Keeffe joke, or their conversation about naming blizzards because “That’s what it’s gonna be like from now on.”
When I feel really defeatist about life, it means a lot to hear Donna’s deeply confessional jokes about her vagina. I just hold on to the thought that you can cry over the low hum of medical equipment during a procedure, then wrap yourself in a blanket, hold your partner’s hand and wait to heal.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.