Donna Stern’s life seems to be falling apart around her. On the same day her Brooklyn bookstore ‘UNOPPRESSIVE, NON-IMPERIALIST BARGAIN BOOKS’ is forced to close down, she discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with her best friend. But while most twentysomethings in her position would “literally die” because they “actually can’t right now”, Donna is driven forward by a meek but powerful urge: to collect all her trauma and project it into the one thing that gives her life meaning… her comedy. After a disastrous stint at her local comedy club, she wakes up from a one night stand to discover that she is pregnant, and the earliest date she can have an abortion is two weeks hence – on Valentine’s Day. Her “three bad things” now dispensed with, Donna’s struggle to overcome and understand this new angle on life makes for a charming story of early adulthood in Brooklyn – the borough of young adults.
Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature feels, unsurprisingly, a lot like a film made by comedians. It is filled with flittering moments of observational comedy – quick one-liners and self-fulfilling gags. But beneath the clinical, sarcastic wit, there is a depth to her treatment of the story that builds gradually into a poignant, mature understanding of her central characters and the world they inhabit. Between and beneath the frenetic bursts of comedy, there is a very real, charming warmth to this film.
Jenny Slate is the perfect muse for Robespierre: brash and confident without, detached almost, but her wit cannot cover the vulnerable, yearning young adult within. She has an almost avian quality – strong but light, an angular face with deep brown eyes. Her every sentence seems to push you away but really she’s begging you to stay. In short, she’s the opposite of an obvious child.
In the end Donna’s trials are not so insurmountable. She has perhaps the two most caring besties in the world in Nellie and Joey (her gay comedian roomie who needs to play Verdi in the bathroom because of his “shy bowels”). And Max – the one night stand – turns out to be a winner. He’s “so Christian, he’s a Christmas tree. He, like, knows Santa”. Schooled in a barn in Vermont, he’s the sort of guy who brings flowers to an abortion clinic (because, it’s still Valentines Day!) He’s a welcome interlude in a life filled with unfulfilled plans, unfinished chores, pushy, successful mothers, and lecherous comedy club owners. Untainted by the ruthless frisson of Brooklyn life, he knows only honesty and kindness. In fact, even Donna’s pushy matriarch proves to be a loving and understanding mother in the end.
But the film, as with it’s titular character, is not trying to make a big deal of its issues. It’s trying to be open and honest about them. In the days following Robin Williams’ sad passing, it’s consoling to be reminded of the transformative power of comedy, not just for the viewers, but for those who enact it because it is the only way of making sense of their lives. The way Patch Adams wished to treat mortality, this film manages to treat everyday life, “with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humour.”