Please Give, the new comedy/drama written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing), is one of the best films of the year so far, and as refreshingly generous as its title implies.
Featuring a mostly female cast (Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, and the amazing Rebecca Hall) and talking place in yuppie/neurotic/Woody Allen Manhattan, Please Give is a film about generosity: given, received, refused, messed up, and contemplated. It’s a film about the small moments of human connection in which we give of ourselves and bond over a mutually understood abundance–that the world can actually be a beautiful place if we open ourselves up to the idea of living for others rather than just ourselves.
The slice-of-life film follows a series of interlocking stories of family, neighbor, and other relationships as they invariably collide in the strapped-for-space urban landscape of Manhattan. Each character, on each day, must interact with dozens of people–sometimes just a homeless person on the street, sometimes a coworker, sometimes an emotional teenage daughter or cranky 9o-something grandmother. Each interaction is an opportunity for either generosity (a smile, a compliment, a gift, a gesture of kindness) or a cold refusal to engage, which is sadly the most typical course of action.
The film’s focal point is Catherine Keener’s character of Kate–a wealthy furniture dealer with a husband, daughter, and a heaping ton of white bourgeouis liberal guilt. Played with characteristic empathy and nuance by Keener, Kate is the type of person who gives cash to homeless people every time she sees one and looks for voluteering opportunities at nursing homes and special needs schools. Unfortunately she is utterly undone by the pain and misery of the less fortunate, and can’t help a child with Down Syndrome without crying. Her generosity is thus largely in the context of narcissim–she gives because she is guilty. But is it that simple?
Please Give is a film full of gifts–visual, emotional, comedic–but perhaps its most valuable offering is that it tackles the issue of generosity and helpfully complicates it. Generosity isn’t always about giving people things. It’s also about relationships and whether or not we truly love people unconditionally and put their interests before our own. It’s about self-denial on one hand (thinking of yourself less and others more) and the affirmation of hope/desire on the other (learning that sometimes we are too easily pleased, and that life is actually capable of offering happiness and even joy). In this film, generosity is both helping your ailing grandmother and forgiving your husband for infidelity. Generosity means not taking advantage of someone else who is taking advantage of you. It is enjoying the beauty of the autumn leaves.
This is a movie that has a refreshingly positive attitude about life, if not always feel-good. It’s a movie that reminds us to give of ourselves–of our time, of our resources, but mostly of our hearts. We are all so broken and in need of even the littlest act of altruism or generosity to get us through the day. And life is short. People are suffering and dying. Rather than rushing by one another in our haste to fulfill our own needs and get to the next important thing, why not pause to just be with someone, or listen to them, for a minute? I think the world is urgent for this sort of generosity. It’s begging us with this call to otherness and action: “Please give.”