Earlier this year, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow's long-overdue breakthrough highlights what remains a remarkable paucity of women among the first ranks of major filmmakers, but one female director who deserves more attention is Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing).
A writer/director, Holofcener got her start working crew jobs on Woody Allen films and has somewhat taken up his mantle in making realistic but comedic films about generally educated, liberal, comfortable-but-not-rich New Yorkers. But the differences are instructive: Holofcener's films focus on women (where Allen played a version of himself, Holofcener has cast Catherine Keener as a version of herself in all her films), have more class awareness (see her last film, Friends With Money, in particular), are more grounded in the real world, and less obsessed with cultural influences and references.
Holofcener's latest, Please Give, stars Keener as Kate, who runs a West Village vintage furniture store along with husband Alex (Oliver Platt). They stock their shop with cheap purchases from the distracted, unwitting adult children of the recently deceased and sell to trendy yuppies at a steep mark-up. This arguably ghoulish yet also mundane profession — a brilliant invention, as it connects to so many of the film's themes — is mirrored in the couple's home life, where they've purchased the next door apartment currently inhabited by 90-year-old Andra (Ann Guilbert), with plans to expand their own apartment into the space when, well, you know.
Kate is wracked with guilt about all this, to the point where she finds herself offering leftovers to the "homeless" black man standing outside the restaurant where she and Alex have eaten (he's just waiting for a table) and trying but failing at various volunteering jobs (where she can't get beyond her own sense of pity). These neuroses annoy her husband, who is not conflicted about their lives, and their teen daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who feels neglected.
Kate's hapless attempts to assuage her guilt result in her inviting the elderly Andra and her two granddaughter/caretakers Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet) over for dinner, an awkward get-together that instigates several provocative interactions between the two families.
Holofcener captures this world clearly and mercilessly. Her film is critical but not ideologically driven, instead rooted in familiarity and observation. The result is a barbed but ultimately humane social satire, one with an undercurrent of generosity that separates it from the corrosive '90s films of Allen or the work of such male inheritors as Todd Solandz or Noah Baumbach. She approaches this prickly material not with self-conscious contempt but with identification, understanding, and rueful amusement.
In this loosely plotted observational comedy (sort of like Seinfeld as realistic indie drama, to choose a different Manhattanite comparison), Holofcener consistently crafts true situations without telegraphing exactly how you should feel about them. Moments abound that would be snickered at in lesser films, but Holofcener holds the tone steady, withholds easy judgment, and keeps her directorial scalpel close to the bone.
Opening Friday, June 18th