The Novelty Of The Imperfect (But Redeemable) Female Character

Despite complaints that it's too parochially New York, there's evidence that writer-director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, currently screening at Sundance, offers something distinctly more relatable: female characters that are neither bitches nor saints.

Holofcener, whose previous films include Walking And Talking, Lovely & Amazing, and Friends With Money, has typically made low-boil, gently satirical films about " upper middle-class neurotics." That's NPR's formulation in comparing her to Woody Allen, a man for whom being too New York was never much of a liability. A useful foil might be Nancy Meyers, but more on that in a moment.

Please Give stars Catherine Keener — Holofcener's frequent muse and alter ego — and Oliver Platt as an antique dealer couple awkwardly waiting until their cranky, elderly neighbor dies and they can take over her apartment. Their lives become entangled with those of the neighbor's granddaughters, played by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet, all of which makes for some multigenerational hilarity. (There's no trailer available yet, but this was my favorite of the four clips available).

Though there are aspirational apartments involved (and Holofcener's mom was Woody Allen's set director!), in Holofcenter's world properties and possessions are often fraught. Another way in which she differs from a certain more commercial female filmmaker of contemporary manners is the fact that her female leads aren't underrecognized but ultimately celebrated superwomen. On the contrary:

Almost alone among American women filmmakers, Holofcener has a startling candor about femininity — her women are bitchy, obsessed with their bodies, often unsuccessful to the point of being real losers, and utterly sympathetic in their efforts to rise above their own pettiness.

Her own actresses paint a somewhat more nuanced picture. Keener, in this MakingOf.com video, describes what she avoids in roles, and implicitly why she keeps working with Holofcener:

I guess I'm on the lookout for a cliched female character because I'm a feminist in my mindsets that way — not just that but that's part of who I am. I can spot them mostly, and I can also fall into it without it being intentional.

And Peet, in a post-screening panel:

I really think it's in the writing...I've played a fair amount of bitches in my life, and I don't think Nicole could write a one-dimensional character if she tried. I thought [her character Mary] had a lot of heart.

Holofcener may be rare in writing uncloying three-dimensional characters for female characters, but she's not the first writer to do so. Still, IFC hits on what's most striking about the Keener-Holofcener dynamic:

Holofcener has a knack for creating recognizable (and often distasteful) characters and then thrusting them into those sort of queasy moral dilemmas to see how they'll react. Actors talk a lot about wanting great parts, but most times what they're really saying is they want great parts where they can play likable people. I suspect Holofcener keeps casting Keener because not only is a superb, natural actor, she seemingly has no problem playing characters who the audience might perceive as petty or cruel or dumb or indifferent.

Some of the most acclaimed performances by actresses last year, even in the better films, were for parts playing monsters (Mo'Nique), giants (Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock), or ingenues (Carey Mulligan). (And those are the brighter notes; girlfriend or victim — or both— is far more common). There's something refreshing about adding something decidedly in between.


Sundance Diary: Nicole Holofcener's 'Please Give,' Or: Women's Worst Impulses, Forgivingly Framed [NPR]
Holofcener Brings Life Experience & Dynamic Words to "Please Give" [IndieWIRE]
Please Give: Clips [IMDB]
Please Give Film Review [The Hollywood Reporter]

Earlier: Sundance Viewers Disgusted By Brutal Beatings of Jessica Alba And Kate Hudson
It's Complicated: The Triumph Of, And Trouble With, Nancy Meyers