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I’ve never seen a film by writer/director Nicole Holofcener, although each has struck my fancy to keep on the shortlist at the back of my mind for future reference. So, when the opportunity came about to view her newest work, Please Give, I knew I had to take it. Everything about the movie seemed to be right up my alley from its being a talkie drama tinged with comedic elements to the stellar ensemble cast culled together. I was ready to experience what has been generating some solid buzz in the past little while; ready to find myself in New York City, smack dab in the middle of two strangely connected families and their strikingly similar constructs. Once the credits began, however, with their quick paced white text on black abruptly transitioning, I did not expect the bevy of breasts that soon appeared. Yes, breast after breast took center frame, close-up and awaiting the mammogram machine in front of them. It’s definitely an attention grabber, black title frames flashing between the clinical assembly line of lead Rebecca Hall’s day job. Here she is doing what she can to save lives, giving when on the clock and giving some more when off it—a definite trend carried throughout.

The title Please Give holds multiple meanings. There are familial bonds, gifts of charity, hopes to volunteer, expressing one’s love in extramarital ways, introducing two kindred spirits together, or being there for a neighbor in times of need when their own family walks away. Examples expressing the film’s name are all around, each character pleading to those in their lives to please give them something, show them some semblance of the gratitude that has remained hidden for too long. Every single person has demons and a yearning for something more, ashamed of their current lives, looking for more in the outside world rather than see what is right in front of them. Many periphery cast members speak about the wonderful weather and the opportunity to go out into the country and watch the leaves turn in the autumn air to hold a moment of nature’s beauty, forgetting the trifling matters waiting back at home upon their return. To catch one’s breath cannot be underestimated when put against the millions of stressful minutiae stacking higher and higher with every passing second in the daily grind.

Leading the way are the respective ‘matriarchs’ of the two families at the center of the film, Catherine Keener’s Kate and Hall’s Rebecca. Both performances are astonishing and show how good these two actors truly are. Keener is a vintage furniture seller with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), coping with the recent crisis of conscience that has been unearthed in her psyche. Having bought the apartment of their elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) and ambulance chasing to practically steal antiques from the children of deceased parents, her guilt in what looks more and more like consciously raping the dead has become too much. She tries to compensate by donating her money to any homeless—or gray-bearded black men she blindly assumes is—person on the street, giving all she has to strangers while standing firm on the subject of not buying her young daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) a $200 pair of jeans. A new desire to volunteer crops up once she begins to talk with the granddaughters of Andra, needing a way to lift the weight crushing down upon her as she waits for the woman to die. But she can’t quite do it, always bursting into tears at the sight of those less fortunate, frightening them more than helping as the steely constitution owned by her husband cannot be adopted.

The granddaughters are Hall and Amanda Peet’s Mary. Although Hall is the youngest, she has taken it upon herself to take care of the other two women in her family after her parents left them behind. Mary is a selfish brat who has built a shield of sarcasm and cynicism to protect her from the pain she found at too young an age, waiting for Andra to die so she no longer has to pretend she cares that everyone leaves. This attitude only pushes Rebecca further into the role of caretaker, going to work each day to x-ray aging women and then visiting her grandmother to walk the dog, get pills set, and make sure she is taken care of; no matter how surly this woman has been her entire life. But this lifestyle has begun to take its toll and this young, attractive woman only finds weirdoes through online dating sites, relegating her personal life to arriving at home for a TV-dinner microwaved by Mary to begin their evening of channel-surfing. She, like Keener’s Kate, is drowning below self-made constraints, taking on too much responsibility for others and forgetting how to first live for herself.

As Please Give continues on, we are soon shown an unending stream of over-lapping between these two institutions. There is the abandonment of Rebecca’s father and the adultery of Platt’s Alex, sparked by a drunken flirt from Mary; the subject of volunteering and giving charity while daughters on both sides are treated poorly and neglected even as complete strangers, probably without a real need for the handouts, prosper at their misfortune; and the ugly ducklings finding a path to accepting how beautiful they are beneath whatever surface unpleasantries may be tossed their way. People begin to make assumptions that their fortunate lives haven’t been fully earned, falling into depression deeper and deeper as the void they attempt to fill only gets larger as those around them begin to pull farther away. There needs to be some sort of compromise at play to relieve the immense pressure; sometimes only hitting rock-bottom, finally shedding light onto the situation at hand and seeing those in most desperate need were glossed right over, can do it.

Holofcener has crafted a tale of humanity at its purest—every blemish brought to the surface for all to see and hopefully overcome rather than hide behind. Only a film with such honesty and authenticity when dealing with family relationships like this is able to bring laughter along with the heartache. Life is funny; people are crude and at times uninhibited by society’s code of decency. The inevitable death of Andra, (a wonderfully portrayed performance by Guilbert, embodying the stubborn 90-year old woman you imagine your loved ones may become), hovers above each event that takes place. It makes some uncomfortable, and in those moments come the biggest laughs, mostly on behalf of Platt’s reactionary expressions. Please Give is a document of life’s painful tragedies decimating those that let it take control, but also the hope and fervor to continue on with those that care about you, no matter how close they may in fact be. The dialogue is witty and the human bonds are completely relatable, allowing you to project yourself on any of the familiar characters on screen. If Holofcener’s past work is even half as real as what she’s put to film here, I may have to be a bit more proactive in finally seeking them out.

Please Give 8/10

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photography:
[1] Left to Right: Catherine Keener as Kate, Oliver Platt as Alex Photo taken by Piotr Redlinski © 2008, Property of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to Right: Rebecca Hall as Rebecca, Amanda Peet as Mary Photo taken by Piotr Redlinski © 2008, Property of Sony Pictures Classics

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