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The Honesty of Who We Are: How Nicole Holofcener Captures Human Dynamics

In Nicole Holofcener’s "You Hurt My Feelings,” opening this week, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Beth overhears her husband confiding to a mutual friend that he doesn't like her current book—a fact he hasn't just withheld but has lied about. Yet, the truth is that in this scenario, it isn't the lie that bothers Beth but that she overheard it at all. Writers learn (through trial and error) to accept criticism—it's a crucial part of our jobs. However, our partners are meant to be our biggest fans, so losing that faith is crushing. It's easy to pretend we want the truth and honest opinions from those with whom we share creative endeavors. The reality is that we often seek the sugar-coated version. 

Once again, Nicole Holofcener’s craft shines through humanistic dialogue that peaks through the cracks in our closets to hear our most inane, selfish, insecure, and heartfelt moments. Her latest is the culmination of an artist who has made a career in studying human intricacies. She wields an observant interest in the in-between days—the walks we trace with friends, the ice cream cones we consume, even the meals we share. Holofcener busies herself with the conversations that lack revelations but build the substance on which relationships are rooted, accompanied by the frustrations of growing older. Holofcener’s writing is formidable in its delicacy. 

There are no affairs, big blowouts, or moments where the couple's marriage is fundamentally threatened. Rather, they're shaken, but the shaking stems from their insecurities. Those who love you the most possess the ability to hurt you the most too. Even as our skin toughens with age and our ability to bounce back strengthens, we remain vulnerable to those who have seen us at our weakest, their opinions the ones we reach for first.

Holofcener’s work, including “Friends with Money,” “Enough Said,” and co-writing “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” allows for the understanding that our interior lives and the day-to-day explorations of self can possess the same magnitude as a life-or-death scenario. Every choice is based on action—no matter how significant. Her films depict the toll those decisions can take—often through small, petty cruelties or earnest yet tepid forgiveness. 

Perhaps her greatest asset, Holofcener's interest extends farther than merely one relationship. Instead, her films inquire into each character and what makes them tick, what spurs them to action, or renders them incapable of decisiveness. She takes all those different pieces, everything that builds to the whole of an individual, and then observes how one person affects and reacts to lovers, strangers, and family alike. Holofcener discovers romantic and platonic love stories with the intuition of a writer who knows a relationship is only as interesting as the characters who make it.

She brandishes an uncanny ability to replicate realistic dialogue that sings because it captures that feeling of someone having read your diary or overheard a conversation. Holofcener manages to make films that, in theory, might sound like simplistic stories about mundane problems but come alive through an abundance of heart and a spark of energized life. 

So many films fail to replicate the dialogue that a person might say in real life. Watch a film such as the recent “Ghosted,” and with it comes that overtly affected cadence of speech that might as well have been written by a machine (or soon might be) for all the naturalism it lacks. In contrast, Holofcener's scripts are imbued with humanism and the warmth that comes with it. Her considerable skills are best highlighted in her conversational approach to character interactions, finely attuned to the quirks, details, and day-to-day inconsistencies that make humans such fascinating studies. 

There’s a clear skew towards stories about women in Holofcener’s career, and often women dealing with aging and the expectations that come with it. From the unexpected heartache of watching a best friend fall in love as their priorities shift, to finding new love at a later age and juggling that and friendship, to her latest, which highlights an artist's need for validation from the one they hold closest, these characters are understated, flawed, ambitious, and loving. They’re real people. 

Real enough that they’re often unlikable to an extent, but in a way that only means to hold a mirror up to the viewer. Dreyfus also stars in “Enough Said,” in which her character is needlessly critical of her partner James Gandolfini due to her own internalized judgment and insecurities. Her lack of tact never negates her relatability. If anything, it enhances it. While she can be unkind and her words acidic, these touches add texture to the character while scratching at our less favorable characteristics. 

In “You Hurt My Feelings,” following an apology where Beth hugs Don (Tobias Menzies), she pushes him away, complaining about how hot he is. Despite the brevity of the moment, it pulsates with an energy that exists between a decades-spanning relationship. There’s such comfort that what might come across as rude or dismissive in a new romance is simply the give and take harbored between two individuals who have shared in one another's triumphs, losses, humiliations, and minutiae of daily life. What wounds in an early relationship is merely a blip. It’s the written equivalent of shrugging a partner's arm off of them at night when it’s muggy or “accidentally” nudging them awake if they’re snoring too loud. 

Holofcener writes for the characters, not just for the plot. It’s an element of her writing that especially shines in earlier films such as “Walking and Talking” and “Lovely & Amazing.” 

In the latter movie, she follows generations of women struggling to adhere to the ever-changing rules and expectations of womanhood. From career aspirations to beauty standards that dictate thinness—and how the two can intersect—the film allows space for the unyielding struggle of adapting to a world where the ruler defined by social pressure changes rapidly with little regard for who it affects the most. It manages to defy expectations, too, as it shows how the pains of unmet beauty standards ache throughout life, and the remnants are cyclical. "Lovely & Amazing" demonstrates how these insidious beliefs are taught and absorbed. 

That Holofcener deals in such heavy subject matter with levity makes it all the more human—it’s the adage of ‘if you don't laugh, you'll cry instead.’ It's one of many instances where Holofcener understands that often the greatest causes of turbulent emotions stem from systems, learned patterns, and quiet expectations.

“Walking and Talking” overflows with similar thematic elements of what it means to be a woman and the expectations that come with it while also dealing with the significance of friendship between women in times of trial and growth. As her first feature film, it's close to a mission statement for the rest of her career. There are the casual insults that bruise, the bizarre mating rituals that consume so much of our adult life, and the staggering force of bonds between friends. Catherine Keener’s Amelia and Anne Heche’s Laura need to split off from their tethers to explore their individual missteps before coming back together, a little worn and weary but capable of lifting up one another. 

The film reminds viewers of the constant need for nurture that helps friendships live and flourish throughout time. While romantic relationships are certainly present in many of her films, what speaks to so many viewers is how every dynamic is given time to evolve, reminiscent of real life. The bonds between siblings and lifelong friends can be just as grounding and revitalizing as a romantic one. 

Holofcener is one of our greatest screenwriters, and “You Hurt My Feelings” is arguably her strongest film. Her triumphs are rooted in her ability to see beyond artifice, and her want to depict humans as they truly are, eager to escape the trappings of Hollywood, where so many films gift us examples of our best, worst, exaggerated selves. Her magic stems from a language of filmmaking that loves the subjects she’s telling stories about, and that means honoring all of the minute, dull, boorish, and intimate details of their lives. Holofcener knows what so many of us do and then honors it from text to screen: we’re all so small in the grand scale of things, our existence worthy of stories still. 

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