No one writes female characters quite like Nicole Holofcener. She has the ability to combine the greater concerns of femininity with the small details – like that cracked gray skin that develops on your elbows, and trying on jeans at department stores with your mom – that seamlessly dot her narratives. And in “Please Give” she has compiled the perfect cast to illustrate her fairly loud and obvious themes.
The film starts with what seems like an endless stream of boobs. But not the hot kind. More like the “tubes of potential danger” that hang off old ladies’ chests and have to be propped onto mammogram glass. The scene is funny and disgusting and sad and beautiful all at the same time, and the radiation technician Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) conducting the mammograms is quickly defined by her work. She’s jaded. She sees things that would otherwise be considered incredible as threats, and the lack of beauty in her life is preventing her from making meaningful connections with everyone else. It doesn’t help that the grandma she has charge of is a cranky old hag, and her tanning-obsessed sister (Amanda Peet) is a total bitch.
Meanwhile, in the apartment next door, Kate (Catherine Keener) and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), are patiently awaiting Rebecca’s grandmother’s death so they can buy her place and expand their own small, New York, apartment. The problem is, Kate is wracked with guilt. About everything. She’s even guilty about the antique shop she and her husband run, and she starts looking for ways to assuage this guilt. She just can’t seem to find anything (volunteering with the elderly or the mentally disabled) that doesn’t serve to depress her even further. Her daughter, struggling with acne, keeps trying to get Kate to turn that guilt and potential affection towards her, but Kate seems to be too wrapped up her in own bourgeois world.
If you’ve seen Holofcener’s other work, this plot should sound vaguely familiar. She deals with a lot of the same themes here that she focuses on in her other work. But there’s nothing wrong with a little repetition when it’s done as well as it is here. Her actors shine in their realistic roles, and the character interactions are incredibly well-scripted. I was especially taken with Platt and Keener, who have a kind of normal, non-dramatic relationship that Holofcener can keep interesting. And, while not everyone can relate to the liberal guilt of the super rich, we can relate to the way a mother and daughter fight, or the way sisters argue over responsibilities.
“Please Give” is an engaging look at New York City family life. Well acted, well scripted, well directed, well shot. There really isn’t anything more to ask for from one of our most talented directors.