Going back at least as far as Moses, Jews have taken public positions at personal risk. Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre’s inspiration comes from more recent role models: Larry Fine, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
The star and writer-director of the bracingly honest indie comedy “Obvious Child” embrace their Jewish comic influences and their Jewish upbringings. But they don’t view the frankness of Slate’s character — New York stand-up comedian Donna Stern, who (for better and worse) draws her act from her personal life, including an unexpected pregnancy — as uniquely Jewish.
“When I think about why the humor is so open, it’s just Donna’s nature from birth,” Slate said during a recent interview. “Maybe she’s been encouraged by her dad [a poet] to be outward, but it doesn’t have anything to do with religion. Also, you know, we live in a world where a certain cultural Judaism includes the goys now.”
The young women share a laugh, and Slate describes a phenomenon she encountered when she moved to Los Angeles a couple years ago and met other transplants.
“The seders and the Rosh Hashanah parties become less typically religious and more cultural, and social becomes familial,” Slate explained. “Whatever the modern Jewish sort of social environment is, that cultural environment, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a part of it.”
Robespierre and two other writers caught Slate’s stand-up act some five years ago and cast her in their short film, “Obvious Child.” Robespierre expanded the story to feature length and was able to raise the small budget thanks to Slate’s visibility on “Saturday Night Live” (one season) and recent recurring television roles in “House of Lies,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
A boisterous yet heartfelt hunk of 20-something angst, populated by self-aware, hyper-verbal characters still seeking their place in the world, “Obvious Child” opens today.
Although it involves revealing a major plot turn, it should be noted that the film pivots on Donna’s decision to have an abortion. A conversation with her mother (played by Polly Draper) provides a key scene, not least because “Obvious Child” is that rare movie in which parents and adult children communicate with and understand each other.
But that neat touch likely will be overlooked amid Donna’s brutally candid and self-critical quips and the film’s willingness to deal directly with abortion.
“It’s not an agenda movie in any way,” Robespierre asserted. “It’s a romantic comedy with a modern look at a modern woman’s experience. One woman, who we love.”
Robespierre grew up in New York City. Both her parents are Jewish, but she didn’t have a bat mitzvah because, she said, “I had dyslexia when I was little so my mother thought I needed to tackle English before Hebrew.”
It may seem like a joke, but it’s not. Slate, who is originally from Milton, Mass., supplies the humor with her childhood memories of Passover.
“We had really, really big seders,” she recalled. “My grandfather would read them, and it was the best, and I would get super, super scared waiting for Elijah. When people would sing ‘Eliahu’ I would have a straight-up meltdown under the table, crying so hard.”
That sounds more traumatic than amusing, admittedly. But Slate has a tough side, perhaps developed from growing up watching the Three Stooges with her father.
“I remember thinking they’re so violent and loud and just so ludicrous, and I related to that more than anything else,” Slate said. “I always relate to the things that are just the most human. And the highest energy. That’s what I go for, I think.”
Our conversation, not unlike “Obvious Child,” merged irreverence with serious subjects. Needless to say, Robespierre and Slate want their movie to provoke laughs as well as discussion.
“We are excited for any conversations that it ignites,” Robespierre said, “whether it’s about the right to choose and women’s reproductive rights or whether it’s about our Jewishness, our heritage. But so far we haven’t been cornered on either of those, so we’ve been living in a comfortable world.”
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.