Still playing for another week at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, Lovely and Amazing is the second film directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose debut was Walking and Talking. It's not a movie that will captivate everyone, but there's a lot to recommend it.
Most impressive about this film are the actresses: Brenda Blethyn plays Jane Marks, biological mother of two adult daughters, Michelle (Catherine Keener from Being John Malkovich) and Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer from Love's Labours Lost), and adoptive mother of an 8 year-old African American girl Annie (Raven Goodwin). There's a kind of harking back to Secrets and Lies, where Blethyn played a white woman surprised by the existence of her grown-up Black daughter, only here the connection is deliberate and voluntary. The understated critique of race relations is, nevertheless, just as severe.
The story takes place in L.A. and features some stereotypical L.A. happenings: Jane is going in for some liposuction, Michelle is an artist with a huge sense of entitlement who can't sell her work, and Elizabeth is a radically insecure actress, obsessed with the shortcomings of her lovely slender body. Both daughters are connected to seemingly ineffectual men, one of which turns out to be a major creep.
Clearly everyone leans hard on Mom for support. Jane, an odd combination of frivolity (she's very wealthy) and kind-hearted strength, seems resigned to having three difficult daughters whom she nevertheless dotes on, cultivating their dependency. When something goes wrong with the liposuction procedure and she's forced to stay in the hospital, we watch the drama of the daughters trying to cope. For most of the story, Michelle seems insufferably self-absorbed, while Elizabeth is maddeningly insecure. An interesting subplot involves Annie, who spends time with another African American woman who acts as her "big sister" but becomes increasingly perplexed by Annie's combination of privilege and racial cluelessness. Goodwin sparkles with personality, her character conveying a complex mix of precocious wisdom (she announces calmly that her mother was a crack addict) and childlike prankishness. She develops a technique of floating face-down in the water for long periods of time, terrifying the adults around her: is she trying to get attention, as the ever-competitive Michelle insists, is she flirting with death, or is she simply demonstrating an unusual skill? We never quite know.
Michelle finally gets a "real" job at a one-hour photo store where the teenage manager promptly falls head-over-heels in love (it's the gorgeous Jake Gyllenhaal from Donnie Darko again). This leads to a hilarious police incident. Elizabeth leaves her boyfriend and tries out for a part in a movie with a famous leading man--played by Dermot Mulroney--who turns out to have the hots for her. Eventually she asks him to detail the flaws and beauties of her naked body. He does, to our surprise, and something about it sets her free, as does Michelle's encounter with the legal system.
At one point, Jane is teetering on the edge of consciousness, while Annie walks off into the urban night. Michelle and Annie unexpectedly meet at MacDonald's, and Michelle delivers a speech that redeems her in our eyes and confers the gift of self-acceptance-perhaps-on Annie.
All these changes--subtle, heart wrenching, brutally honest and dryly humorous--are delivered through sharp, precise dialogue and top-notch acting. The director shows us how these difficult, self-absorbed women, nearly insufferable on the surface, expose their depths, their vulnerabilities, and ultimately the powerful yet unsentimental love that binds them together. Like every family-except, that is, for the utter lack of economic anxieties-this one reveals itself to be both profoundly imperfect and . . . lovely and amazing.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.
Copyright Carla Freccero 2002