Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
When stealing candy from a baby turns into buying cheap mid-century furniture from the “children of dead people,” tarry streams of guilt are bound to snake their way into your head. When you’re a woman who has grown in a male-dominated world and, because of that upbringing, learned guilt is less an infrequent emotion for the worst of situations than a default state of being (how many times have you said “I’m sorry” when apology wasn’t necessary?), those reptiles of burden are far more noxious. And in writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, that self-reproach is far knottier, sticky-taped to self-absorption, and the idea that a woman can be both ashamed and arrogant in the same breath blooms at the center of its story.
Catherine Keener, a longtime collaborator of Holofcener’s, leads as Kate, a Manhattanite mom who has made her living in an ethically gray manner: She, along with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), built a booming business buying vintage furniture straight from the source — and then jack up the price to triple or quadruple the amount she paid for it, sets it up in the chic showroom of her shop on 10th Avenue, and reaps the riches of the savvy setup. But she’s also plagued with an ambivalence with which all women — not just the ones who live more than comfortably in a big city and a flush savings account — are familiar to some degree: Kate’s prone to disquiet, always fighting an inner angst, worried that perhaps she isn’t deserving of what she has, since so many have next to nothing. She loves the rewards her pseudo grave-robbing has provided her and her family, but that doesn’t stop the pangs of doubt and the ropes of guilt from rendering her unnerved — and unable to step outside her apartment without handing out crisp twenty-dollar bills to strangers. Kate’s situation is only made more complicated by her intermittent displays of conceit and her bouts of insensitivity, as well as her teenage daughter Abby’s (Sarah Steele) befuddlement at her bleeding heart and openhandedness. And so she’s faced with a charcuterie plate of questions: Is guilt the only thing fueling her generosity? Is it better to give money, time, or yourself? How far can her altruism extend? How far should it?
These uncertainties flitting between her ears, Kate draws out plans and dreams up airier living quarters while she and Alex covet the apartment adjacent to theirs. The couple own the property, and intend to knock down the connecting wall and clear it out to, and like they’ve done with their furniture prices, double what they already have. Something — or someone, rather — puts their plans on pause: their cantankerous elderly neighbor Andra (a brilliant Ann Guilbert), who’s “still kicking” in the craved-for suite and whose death Kate and Alex are waiting for, as her passing will lead to their apartment-related pleasure. (They can’t move in until she, well, moves out.)
It’s through Andra that we meet two more multifaceted women, Andra’s adult granddaughters: the jaded and hard-shelled yet undeniably incandescent Mary (played in a wonderfully blase tone by Amanda Peet) and the self-sacrificing and pulled-in Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Similarly, meeting Andra provides Kate with an entirely new set of concerns: Is secretly wishing for Andra to die so that her family can be “happier” with a larger home as sordid and shameful as it gets? Or is it another one of her wise investments? How does she assuage the guilt that’s grown after becoming acquainted with Andra, Mary, and Rebecca? Can she be a good human, or, at the very least, a good neighbor?
In a cinematic New York that’s less lush than the vision of Nora Ephron, Kate and Abby, Rebecca and Mary, and Andra especially live non-cinematically; their lives are genuine, their personalities chaotic in the way that real ones are, their interactions believable. Holofcener expertly dramatizes the duality in the dynamic between Rebecca and Mary (good girl and bad girl), and does the same with what goes on inside Kate’s head. There is a lightness (rifling out cash to the less fortunate, inviting Andra over for a celebratory dinner, hoping to help a group of special needs children) and a darkness (swooping in to collect the couches and armchairs of someone freshly deceased, snapping at her daughter over materialistic things when she herself is given to materialism, sobbing at the fact that her ego has kept her from interacting with the kids she wanted to offer not her money but her time to) to her. She doesn’t know whether to blame her milieu or her mind for making her this way, but she’s buckling to the truth that she’s not as noble as she’d like to be, a fact that isn’t fatal. Holofcener is magnanimous in her characterization of Kate, allowing her to be as human as they come — lucky and ill-at-ease, a woman who is fortunate yet still finds herself unfulfilled.
In any other filmmaker’s possession, the heart of Please Give may have been bruised with an unsavory, affected virtuousness. But in Holofcener’s humanist hands, it’s satisfying and smart and sly. She splatters the walls with her characters’ ennui, ends things ambiguously, plucks from the tree of life a group of people who feel they exist outside entertainment. Ultimately, Please Give offers the suggestion that only compassion can clear a troubled conscience, but it may take some (like Kate) tears and undulating turmoil to arrive there. And that’s okay.