Movies that Matter: Please Give/Mother and Child

This has been an awful year for American cinema. From hackneyed plots to rebooted classics, Hollywood won’t stop doing what’s already been done —with every intent to pin big numbers at the box office, but not to create something of worth. And if it’s not a remake, it’s probably adapted from a comic book, which regardless of being hip, isn’t always a supportive foundation for truth or art; the fanboy literature, especially more recently, has a tendency to be overly violent, pornographic and nihilistic.

Amid such junk, however, arrives two motion pictures that prove film can still exist as an art form—and not just mindless entertainment—and still possess moral value, painting reality with honesty, yet not void of hope. These 2010 gems are Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child and Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give.

Garcia’s emotional drama—that epitomizes what a “chick flick” should be—follows the interconnected lives of three women: that of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is seeking to adopt a baby after failing to have her own; Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an independent lawyer whose promiscuous behavior and destructive relationships leave her moving from place to place, and eventually pregnant; and Karen (Annette Bening), Elizabeth’s biological mother, who as a teenager put her up for adoption at birth, leading to a life of regret and resentment.

Besides a compelling story, which actually makes use of multiple characters, who perch one another, and plots—unlike the overrated Crash—the film succeeds on all fronts. The three lead actresses play their diverse roles with pure sincerity, accomplishing award-worthy performances that will likely go unnoticed because of industry politics. Playing Elizabeth’s sophisticated boss, Samuel L. Jackson also achieves a stunning feat, in a quiet role we see in him in too rarely.

These characters wouldn’t be this realized, though, if it wasn’t for the direction and screenwriting of Garcia. He and cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet create what is unmistakably art: Every shot and scene is beautiful. Moreover, Garcia’s screenplay gives us a world full of subtext, as each moment and line points toward something else—something bigger. And such crafted elements are harmonized through the highly-emotional, original music of composer Ed Shearmur.

In its distinct way, Holofcener’s masterpiece Please Give accomplishes similar virtues. It, visually and literarily, captures New York City and its people in a way filmmakers like Woody Allen don’t. That’s because its characters aren’t posh elitists, who don’t take into consideration their statuses. Holofcener’s personas are contrary, riding the line between middle and upper-class, while struggling through the guilt and advantages surrounding those circumstances.

These individuals are husband and wife vintage furniture shop owners Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), and their teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). As their lives begin to intersect with unalike sisters Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a kind nurse, and Mary (Amanda Peet), a superficial cosmetologist whose stubborn grandmother lives next door to the family—in an apartment Kate and Alex want to buy—each faces a moral dilemma.

Kate, who spends her days lurking through the remains of the diseased, buying décor for cheap and reselling it for a fortune, finds herself overwhelmed by shame, making her question her career altogether and, essentially, her heart. Through her personal quest, Alex slowly grows distant from her—ignoring what she sees in lieu of how they make money—and gets involved in an extra-marital affair. And among all this, Abby battles through what most individuals her age do: maturity, pimples, self-esteem and responsibility—a transition of becoming less egocentric.

Rebecca and Mary don’t go unchanged, either. Developed deeply by Holofcener, who writes female characters carefully and genuinely, these foils—despite a slew of differences—grow side by side and embody the real bonds of a family, in a manner we can relate to and learn from.

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Overall, Holofcener’s characters are tangible human beings faced, in some ways, with the same struggles and frustrations inside the Christian faith, the clash between flesh and spirit, which more often than not plays out practically as selfishness versus selflessness. Despite a quality script, however, none of them would take such shape without outstanding performances by Holofcener’s cast.

Keener, undeniably one of the best actresses in Hollywood right now, is nearly flawless as Kate, a character whom every viewer—male or female—can understand and empathize with, regardless of social class. And Rebecca Hall, whose talents Christopher Nolan revealed in The Prestige, is just as convincing. Like Keener, her ordinary beauty and characteristics help her create a believable woman, who lives a familiar, non-foreign life. In other words, she’s like us.

In a broad sense, Holofcener and Garcia explore what it means to be human. Particularly, they examine the kind of human striving to live a meaningful, gracious life. For the characters in Please Give this means ethics, specifically how they relate to the American dream, corporately and personally. For Mother and Child, this transmits to spirituality and its connection to motherhood and relationships, and in the end forgiveness.

Even if it wasn’t a dry season for film, these two pieces of art, which are accomplished cinematically and morally, would be worth the time and money. They will challenge you emotionally and intellectually, making them the best of the year so far.

Mother and Child and Please Give are Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language.

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