Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Ann Guilbert, Sarah Steele, Thomas Ian Nicholas
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 30 Apr 2010 (Limited release)
Abby (Sarah Steele) is embarrassed by her mother. In this, she’s like a million other teenagers, of course. But in addition to the usual awkwardness imposed by moms—paying too much attention, not getting what’s important—Abby is also bothered by her mom’s fretting about money. Specifically, she’s mortified that Kate (Catherine Keener) likes to give money to homeless people, not just pocket change, but 10- and 20-dollar bills. Because they live in Manhattan, Kate has lots of opportunity for such giving. And Abby has lots of opportunity to stew about how gauche such giving is.
Abby’s discomfort is weirdly exemplary in Please Give. At one level, Nicole Holofcener’s movie examines how people trade money for love and vice versa, as well as money for freedom from guilt, for self-esteem, for a sense of identity. Kate and Abby’s dad Alex (Oliver Platt) contend with all this daily, in their business, a vintage-objects shop they fill with furniture and paraphernalia they buy, as Kate puts it, “from the children of dead people.” Typically, they don’t tell these sellers what their objects are worth. This is, Alex explains, the way the world works. “Your guilt is warping you,” he sighs. “Somebody else will do what we do.”
Still, Kate’s starting to wonder about what they do, and her worry leads her to give back—whether in the form of cash on the street or assorted volunteer efforts (not coincidentally, she’s completely unsuited for such work, tearful at the sight of handicapped kids playing basketball). She also feels guilty about her and Alex’s latest plan, to buy the apartment next door in order to make theirs bigger, with more room for their own objects. They’re essentially waiting for the current occupant, 91-year-old Andra (Ann Guilbert), to die. Even as Kate frets that this makes hr even more ghoulish than usual, she keeps running into Andra’s granddaughters, Mary (Amanda Peet) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), in the hallway—to the point that she invites them to dinner, rather creepily, for Andra’s birthday.
The two families have nothing in common except their (very different) interests in the apartment, and so their dinner is mostly excruciating. Still, it sets up ensuing plot steps, including Mary’s affair with Alex, and Abby’s friendships with both sisters. As she’s suffering through some especially bad-complexion time, Abby is first drawn to Mary, a skin specialist who makes her living giving facials at a nearby spa. Her own brown hue the result of tanning booths, Mary is perpetually at odds with her mean-spirited grandmother and unhappy over a recent breakup, but she’s not so careless or reckless as she puts on (the movie’s most moving moment has her and Rebecca seated on a sofa watching TV, Mary’s head leaned into her sister’s shoulder, silently sharing a difficult mix of grief, relief, and genuine, if unexpected, affection for each other).
Rebecca is another sort of role model for Abby. A warm, sensitive, and mostly lonely mammogram technician, she comforts her patients during their appointments (the film opens with a montage of bare breasts, pressed and arranged like objects on the radiology plates, a nearly perfect evocation of a perfectly horrid medical ritual). Her kindness is tentative but genuine, as defensive in its way as Mary’s polished facade. Neither of the sisters quite knows what she wants, and neither is convinced her response to their shared, obscure, and difficult past (including a mother who killed herself) is righteous, healthy or even very effective. As they work through their own sense of abandonment and guilt in their tense relationships with Andra, they resent and also appreciate one another.
As Abby watches Mary and Rebecca, and sometimes seeks their advice on how to live with Kate, the cracks in their surfaces are increasingly visible—to themselves, at least. Though Mary initially offers all manner of advice to Abby concerning her face, she’s not above taking an especially nasty revenge on her in order to punish Alex. It’s a stunning turn that makes you rethink all the assumptions you’ve been making, about motivations and expectations, about what’s at stake for anyone here.
It also makes you rethink what it means to give. If giving is always a relationship (there are at least two people involved), giving also entails taking, whether in business, romance or family interactions. As Abby sorts through the possibilities of giving and taking laid out before her, emulating one or rejecting another, she’s at times a mirror for these possibilities. In this role, Abby is not so much a means for the adults’ education (though they all need that), as she is a person coming to see herself—in others’ eyes but more importantly, in her own. The film’s last image, Abby trying on a very expensive pair of jeans she’s been asking for, is at once disturbing (more materialism, reinforced) and lovely, a moment when giving and taking seem temporarily in balance, a moment when mother and daughter might see each other.