By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; E06
In the recently released film "Please Give," Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are a New York couple in the business of selling mid-century modern furniture, which they purchase at estate sales. The film focuses on Kate's guilt and angst over buying the belongings of the deceased, as well as her unshakable sense of despair over the pain of others. In the middle of this plot hangs a pair of designer jeans.
The couple's 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), is obsessed with finding the perfect pair. The only other topic that occupies her attention to the same degree is the acne that spreads across her face, making a stealth attack on her self-image.
The jeans are the subject of a nagging argument between mother and daughter, one that simply won't go away. It begins when Abby tells her mother about a pair of jeans that have piqued her interest, but at a cost of $200, Kate immediately dismisses them as too lavish. The simmering emotions begin to boil.
A shopping trip in search of a less expensive substitute culminates in a loud conflict in front of other customers. Abby models a pair of jeans with flap pockets and decorative topstitching and Kate says they look great. Abby is unconvinced. What teen shopping trip could possibly end so quickly? She tries on another pair -- deep indigo with almost no embellishment. Kate likes those, too. The daughter? No. No. No! In fact, Abby thinks the jeans are borderline horrific and if her mother actually could say they look good, then she must think her daughter looks hideous every day of her life.
In a massive teenage meltdown, Abby accuses her mother of not really looking at her, of not respecting her feelings enough to give her an honest assessment.
Filmmaker Nicole Holofcener prevents the audience from forming an aesthetic opinion. Because of the camera angle, it's impossible to get a full-length view of Abby. The fit and silhouette are obscured. It's her enraged, disappointed face that is the focal point. On the aesthetic issue, the audience doesn't know whom to believe.
Kate stomps away in aggravation; Abby sulks in the fitting room until the shop closes and she's finally forced to go home. The scene surely rings true to any parent who has ever had to wrestle with the seemingly excessive desires and shallow fixations of a teenager. And it's undoubtedly familiar to teenagers who have tried to explain to their parents why a certain garment is essential to their emotional well-being.
On some level, everyone involved in these yelling matches knows that the jeans -- or the shirt, the jacket, the shoes -- are beside the point.
The clothes serve as tools for belonging, for boasting, for staking a claim of independence. They're how people communicate when the words are too emotionally fraught, confusing or even elusive.
In "Please Give," the hunt for just the right pair of jeans is an opportunity for the daughter to spend time with her mom. (Father Alex gives her a fashionable top, which Abby loves. But it's Mom's judgmental eyes she yearns for.) And the fact that Abby longs for designer jeans is the daughter's crude way of measuring just how much her happiness means to her mother. Is she willing to go all-out to put a smile on Abby's face? Can Kate empathize with her daughter in the same way that she does with the homeless, to whom she perpetually gives cash?
In one scene, Kate reaches out to give a homeless man $20, when Abby suddenly lurches forward to snatch it away. She yells at Kate: You never give me that much money! Of course, the audience knows that Abby -- with her comfortable home on lower Fifth Avenue -- receives a wealth of material goods from her parents. It's the outsize, unearned understanding that she wants from her mom. Abby doesn't just want jeans, she wants her mother to appreciate her insecurities and her desire to feel special. She wants her to recognize what it means to be 15 years old with zits.
So much of the teen's inner turmoil is expressed through her relationship to fashion. But in a refreshing way, fashion isn't indicted as the villain. It isn't reviled for setting impossible beauty standards or sending a young woman down a path toward self-doubt or superficiality. Abby doesn't seem flustered by fashion but drawn to it, confident that with a little guidance she can use it to her advantage. It can help her navigate adolescence and find her voice.
There is a point in "Please Give" when Kate realizes what the jeans mean to Abby. Her daughter hasn't been asking for a specific brand; she wasn't insistent on a certain style. As much as is possible in the world of contemporary fashion, Abby hasn't been trying to follow the pack. She's been desperately trying to stand out from it.
When the family finally goes into Adriano Goldschmied, a designer jeans shop, Kate and Alex watch as Abby comes out of the fitting room. The jeans she's wearing are nice, but they're not especially striking. But she's is strutting just a little. The camera offers a clear view of Abby: her figure, her smile, her confidence. And for the first time, Kate also has an unobstructed view of her daughter.