Since the mid 1990s, Catherine Keener has been responsible for creating more recognizably believable women in movies than anybody else, period. From the neurotic Amelia in 1996's Walking and Talking to the single mother in Where the Wild Things Are, Keener not only makes these women real, she makes characters that might appear similar into unique people. That she can be funny and moving and argumentative on top is a testament to her understated gifts. And in writer/director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, Keener delivers one of her more subtly prickly and complexly imperfect performances, creating a wife/mother/business owner who is looking for something missing from her life that she can't quite pin down.
Give is the story of two New York families lightly bound by one grouchy old woman. The 91-year-old Andra (Ann Guilbert) lives in the apartment next door to Kate (Keener), her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), and their teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). Kate and Alex buy selected furniture and belongings from the children of older people who die, and sell them for a substantial markup in their vintage furniture store. And Kate is starting to feel the emotional drain of making a living off the recently departed.
Even though she and Alex totally plan on buying Andra's apartment after she dies to remodel into an even bigger single-family apartment. Andra is cared for by her two granddaughters, esthetician Mary (Amanda Peet) and radiology technician Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Well, Rebecca primarily takes care of her. Mary is a bit of a cold, hard case: She speaks her mind even if it hurts feelings and somewhat stalks the woman for whom her ex-boyfriend dumped her. Rebecca is nicer, but also a bit more vulnerable: Somewhat shy and reserved, she feels indebted to take care of Andra, who raised the sisters after their mother died.
Holofcener often puts members of these two families in the same room but emotional worlds apart, articulated through body language--both Hall and Keener can turn mere posture into a cone of isolation--or framing. Early on Rebecca runs into Kate in the apartment building's tiny elevator, but chooses to shoot them in isolating one shots that create a chasm between them. The awkwardness of that divide is reinforced as they approach their destination apartments' doors, which sit almost cheek to cheek.
Keener's Kate travels the longest, and most meandering, emotional arc here, because she's also the woman searching for something the most intangible. Kate has an almost pathological compunction to give something back--be it money or leftovers to the homeless--and tries to appease this impulse. She makes volunteer inquiries at an old folks' home and a school for mentally challenged kids, and while visiting both she can't emotionally handle the situation. And while Give never quite answers why that might be, it suggests how Kate might go about dealing with that inner turmoil. The movie ends up feeling slight only because it's asking big questions inside such a low-key situation: an unfussy portrait of a woman who appears to have so much, and yet still needs something more out of life.