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'Obvious Child' is star-making and splendid

***1/2 (out of four)

Seriously: Jenny Slate has arrived. In the wonderful “Obvious Child,” she’s funny, vulnerable, endearing and specific—an odd character who feels real because the person playing her makes her real. It’s like Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids,” and “Child” feels like that kind of breakout part for Slate (“Parks and Recreation,” “Kroll Show”). I hope.

She plays Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian whose act consists only of venting about her life. On and off stage, she’s proudly vulgar, with unintended vaginal functions and bowel movements serving as her way of relating her concerns to the world. After she’s dumped and fired in quick succession—the unisex bathroom-set breakup scene achieves special, heart-slicing insincerity as the dumper constantly checks his phone while confessing to cheating—Donna eventually has a drunken night with Max (Jake Lacy of “The Office”). That results in an accidental bodily function she hasn’t yet covered in her act: pregnancy.

Expanding her 2009 short film of the same name, writer/director Gillian Robespierre avoids nearly every cliché and pitfall that could derail a movie like this. She makes Donna and her plan to get an abortion messy but blunt. With each line (Donna tells the audience, “I feel like when someone does something bad they should just die”) the filmmaker cuts to the gut of pain or loneliness or uncertainty or all of the above. That the film, my favorite of the 17 I saw at Sundance, is often cackle-inducing funny is no small achievement for something so honest.

A few moments stretch credibility, but the rapport between every character, especially Donna and Max, more than compensates. At a restaurant they share one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen on screen in a while, and no way I’m going to ruin it. Throughout, Lacy shows how a character can be nice without being bland. But “Obvious Child,” one of the best romantic comedies in a while, is often great because of Slate. The range of recognition, shame and regret on her face while crying about the cost of an abortion is something many actors who have headlined many more movies can’t pull off. Especially when playing a character who, at various moments, impersonates her imagined voice of both her brain and her butthole.

That may sound gross, but it’s not. With far more natural charm than “Juno” or “Knocked Up,” “Obvious Child” is uninhibited and lovable. Which is probably why I want to hug this movie.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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