Film

Lovely & Amazing (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Even as the girls in Holofcener's world have their own problems, they provide acutely recognizable reflections.


Lovely & Amazing

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aunjanue Ellis, James Le Gros, Dermot Mulroney, Clark Gregg
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-06-28

Elizabeth Marks (Emily Mortimer) is on a photo shoot to promote her new movie. "Open up your shirt," encourages the photographer. "Give us a nice look!" Elizabeth does what she's told, but she's visibly nervous. "I just don't feel quite like myself," she worries. The photographer sighs, "Who does?"

Elizabeth's older sister Michelle (Catherine Keener) is an artist, of sorts. Restless in her marriage, though devoted to her young daughter, she spends her time making teeny chairs out of wood and feathers, pointy and fragile (her husband has a habit of stepping on them, accidentally of course). When you first see Michelle, she's trying to sell her chairs to a local gift shop. "Don't you wish you were little enough to sit in them?" Michelle asks the woman at the counter, smiling a little too brightly. The clerk rolls her eyes, says no thanks to the chairs. Michelle grumbles, "Bitch." "Excuse me?" comes the wide-eyed response. "Nothing!"

Each unhappy in her own way, Elizabeth and Michelle form the intriguing center of Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing. Like her first film, 1997's Walking & Talking, this one deftly and indirectly considers the complicated relationships of ordinary -- difficult, sexual, insecure, insightful -- female characters, in this case, the 30something sisters, their mother Jane (Brenda Blethyn), and adopted 8-year-old sister Annie (Raven Goodwin). It's hard for all of them to say what they mean, to feel like themselves, to be girls.

As the film begins, Jane is going into the hospital for just a bit of liposuction, so she can "feel better about herself." Her three daughters are apprehensive, but even as they reject Jane's concerns about how she looks ("at her age"), they also feel, suppress, and act out similar concerns. Model-thin Elizabeth looks at herself and can only see "flabby" arms, a perception encouraged by her self-absorbed boyfriend Paul (James Le Gros), who is increasingly exhausted by her fretfulness.

Michelle has developed more effective emotional armor than Elizabeth, mainly by projecting her anger onto everyone around her. Currently, her frustration has turned into serial arguments with her husband (Clark Gregg), about the fact that she's never had a paying job. Reluctantly, Michelle agrees to take Annie while Jane's in the hospital, but it's not a wholly copasetic pairing. At first, they can't agree on Jane. "She goes through life in a glaze," says Michelle, "so she doesn't have to deal with reality." Annie asks the just-right question: "What's reality?" Michelle sighs, "It's a choice." The exchange seems almost a throwaway, it happens so quickly, but it says everything about the ways that effects of gender and race discriminations, among others, are turned back around on the victims.

By the end of the day, Annie resisting Michelle's attitude toward Jane and her efforts to play "mom," the two are down to basics, tossing "Fuck yous" at one another. And so, Elizabeth, self-designated fixer (she regularly brings home stray dogs), takes over Annie's care, agreeing to stay over at Jane's house, at least until she gets a chance at a date, upon which she leaves Annie with her Big Sister, Lorraine (Aunjanue Ellis). She has this Big Sister, in addition to two other older sisters, because she is black, and Jane believes it's important that she spend time with a black "role model." The complications of this situation are almost impossible to sort out, perhaps especially when you're 8.

Still, and though Annie is young, she's more than able to observe and, to an extent, understand the neuroses that surround her. Her concerns begin to reframe everyone else's. Slightly overweight, she is (unsurprisingly, given the weight-concerned women around her), she's both overly conscious of it and resentful of her awareness: she tends to eat cookies (fat-free, courtesy of Jane's shopping habits) and McDonalds when she's feeling "stressed out." the anxieties about skinny white bodies. Annie is beginning to articulate her own insecurities, stemming in part from her interracial adoption (the character is loosely based on Holofcener's own adopted brother, who is black as well), and in part from living with this particular family of women.

The night before Jane's surgery, she gives Annie a bath. Obviously worried that Jane is going away, Annie asks for a definition of "liposuction," then announces that she wants "skin like yours." Flustered, Jane tells her daughter that her own skin is beautiful, that it is hers, to be cherished. But already, Annie comprehends that, for some people, at least those who can imagine and afford plastic surgery, "reality" can be a choice.

Each character has to deal with her own anxieties, and each undergoes some minor epiphany during the course of Lovely & Amazing. Elizabeth breaks up with Paul, Michelle gets a job, Annie begins experimenting at the pool where Lorraine is teaching her to swim, pretending that she's drowned, an apt metaphor for her fears of loss and abandonment, and unformed and terrifying desires for same. She convinces Lorraine to straighten her hair, raising still more questions about how both familial inheritance (nature and nurture) and commercial culture shape apparently "individual" desires and dispositions.

Jane's surgery leads to "complications" of the physical kind, leading her three daughters to reevaluate their own ambitions and disappointments while they worry about her recovery. Elizabeth goes on yet another audition, a "chemistry test" with a famous Hollywood star, Kevin (Dermot Mulroney). She doesn't get the part (not being "sexy enough"), but spends a night with him, during which she convinces Kevin to tell her exactly what's "wrong" with her body. His helpful suggestions? "I like your breasts" and "In a perfect world, your ass would be rounder." Elizabeth thanks him for his honesty, and he feels oddly fulfilled.

Meantime, Michelle embarks on her own almost-affair, with her new boss at the local photomat, 17-year-old Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). While they're making out in her car, he discovers her hand-drawn wrapping paper (another unsellable art project), and exclaims, "I'd buy this in a second!" She appreciates his passion, as well as the first sincere attention she's received in years. Sitting in his bedroom after he's come home from school, they discuss their problems with their parents, hers being sick or dead, his being insensitive. His mother busts them soon after, Michelle noting that they have the same bathrobe as she's carted off to jail for statutory rape.

This utter loss -- Michelle's arrest incurs her philandering husband's rage, who threatens to take their daughter -- leaves her stricken, but suddenly able to make a generous choice, to look after Annie, at once the most self-sufficient, most generous, and neediest of the three sisters. Lovely & Amazing's emotional specificity, its very smallness of scope, is enormously rewarding. Shot on digital video by Harlan Bosmajian, the film achieves a refreshing intimacy and complexity, never pushing too hard, never revealing too much. Even as the girls in Holofcener's world have their own problems, they provide acutely recognizable reflections.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Fleetwood Dissects the European Mindset in His Moody, Disturbing Thriller, 'A Young Fair God'

Hugh Fleetwood's difficult though absorbing A Young Fair God offers readers a look into the age-old world views that have established and perpetuated cultural rank and the social attitudes that continue to divide us wherever we may reside in the world.

Music

Art Feynman Creates Refreshing Worldbeat Pop on 'Half Price at 3:30'

On Half Price at 3:30, Art Feynman again proves himself adept at building colorful worlds from unexpected and well-placed aural flourishes. He's all nuance, carefully mining aural crevices left untapped or unnoticed.

Music

The Beths Are Sharp As Ever on 'Jump Rope Gazers'

New Zealand power-poppers, the Beths return with a sophomore album that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.

Music

The Jayhawks Offer Us Some 'XOXO'

The Jayhawks offer 12-plus songs on XOXO to help listeners who may be alone and scared by reminding us that we are all alone together.

Music

Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross

Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.

Film

Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.

Television

Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.

Music

LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.

Books

'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.

Music

Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.

Music

Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.

Music

Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.