The Kids are All Right got all the indie-film buzz, but Nicole Holofcener's Please Give is just as vibrant and fizzy and truthful. It also has a sort of bent, honest sense of humor that allows you to get over yourself.
You have to love Catherine Keener's Kate, the co-owner (with her kind of schlocky husband Alex, played by the lovable Oliver Platt) of a trendy estate-sale furniture store in Chelsea: she's savvy and ambitious, but also self-deprecating and guilt-ridden. In her journey to make her life have more meaning, she checks out different charities where she might volunteer. These scenes, in which Kate interviews for volunteer gigs at a nursing home and a day program for people with developmental disabilities, have a spark and rush to them. Keener's face goes ghostly as she confronts what her own charitable instincts mean: introducing herself to total strangers via "giving" them some of her time. Obviously for someone New-Yorky and self-hating as Kate is, being able to get over the hurdle of wondering why these folks would even want her in their lives is a big endeavor. She's honest to the bone, and her sympathy does not allow her insight or motivation; it just makes her cry when she sees a women bent out of shape from arthritis, or a man with Down Syndrome being cheered on to make a hoop.
This brutal truthfulness gives Kate, and the movie, a mean streak, but it's a mean streak we all have and eventually have to get over to be sane enough to do good works. Kate realizes her instinct to be a better human being needs to start at home, and by the end of Please Give she buys her daughter an expensive pair of jeans. Her daughter whining and wanting the jeans has pissed her off for most of the film. She sees the jeans as a symbol of conspicuous consumption since the world around her is teeming with "needier" cases.
The movie seems to be spotlighting an innate hypocrisy at the center of all charity: the desire to be "good," to "please give" is not totally altruistic or even a good thing. It's built on other darker desires too, and Kate's quest for peace of mind includes giving a Styrofoam container of restaurant leftovers to a "homeless man" who actually turns out to be a guy waiting in line on a table outside a bistro. What you see isn't necessarily what you get, and Please Give trounces on that concept, satirizing the need to make the world a better place and eventually arriving at a more amenable and honest thesis: good intentions aren't what save you, not even charitable acts. Giving a 20-dollar bill to a homeless man is just the same as buying your daughter a $200 pair of jeans.
Sounds superficial and self-centered, right? But Please Give makes a pretty strong case.