Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Vanity in ‘Please Give’

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 12, 2010

    What happens when we look in the mirror? Do we see happiness? Beauty? Sexiness? Or, do we see age, burden, and/or loss? How does this impression change from minute to minute or from day to day? Do we look at our feeling state when we look in the mirror, or are we seeing the contours of our face? I thought about all these questions as I watched “Please Give”


Please Give 


Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall

Official Selection SUNDANCE Film Festival

Official Selection BERLIN Film Festival

Now Playing in New York and Los Angeles


      ‘Please Give,” a movie titled to suggest the guilt of the privileged (see, made me more aware of the never-ending vanity that strikes all of us, throughout our lives. The teenager, Abby (Sarah Steele) is preoccupied by her facial acne and looking good in a pair of jeans; fairly typical concerns of her age. Kate (Catherine Keener) wants to “help” others but at the same time she says “gee, my elbows are looking really old.” There is Alex (Oliver Platt), Kate’s husband who, in typical middle-age fashion, flirts with women half his age, as if to prove that he still “has it,” implying that he wants to feel attractive. Then, there are neighbors, two girls in their twenties caring for their ninety year old grandma. One sister, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is a radiology technician, and she seems to have little interest in her appearance, until she wants to meet a man, at which point, she begins to look more attractive. Mary (Amanda Peet), the other sister, is consumed with looking good, making her character  empty and shallow, apparently as a way of covering up more deeply seated pain.
     The intersection between the interior world and the exterior world gets played out in ‘Please Give’. The reality of aging is sometimes driven home by looking in the mirror. Sometimes, this creates anxiety and depression. Other times, feeling good about the world trumps the site of wrinkles and skin damage. In ‘Please Give’ there was a constant tension between looking good and feeling good. Mary’s character looked good, but felt angry.  She was tan (with tanning machines) well-dressed and she always looked attractive, while at the same time, she had  poor relationships and she was  yelling at those who were closest to her. Rebecca, by contrast  was cast in a role in which she was the “nice one” but not the “pretty one.” As such, she was the better caretaker of her grandmother;  the movie made it seem that because she did not focus on her appearance, she had a hard time finding a relationship. 
    Throughout the movie, how the characters felt about their appearance seemed to layer over how they felt about their lives. Mary was pretty, but empty. Rebecca was plain, and she struggled. Kate was struggling with middle-age; she hoped to use her age and stage in life to help others, but that failed. Alex sought young beauty, so that beauty would reflect back on himself,  but eventually, he found himself feeling guilty and uncertain. Abby was the only one who won the vanity struggle. She came to accept her acne and she came to love herself in her jeans. As such, Abby seemed both internally and externally gratified. Although a minor character, Abby became our role model for happiness. She moved through angst to acceptance. Exactly how she did that, the audience can only wonder. I suspect that Abby, having a good-enough relationship with her mom and her dad, had the safety and the security to move from the fear of an adolescent body, along with adolescent skin, to the excitement that she was entering into a new adult world filled with possibility. This excitement made Abby put her appearance in perspective. To me, Abby’s psychological growth made her the heroine of this character-driven movie.



2 Responses to “Vanity in ‘Please Give’”

  1. Shelly said

    Rebecca is plain, and she struggles. Kate struggles with age. Alex focuses on the external, which makes him shallow. Abby accepts herself as she is, which makes her the heroine in the story in your eyes. Mary focused on her external beauty, so she is empty. Obviously the message is to accept oneself as one is and not focus on one’s looks, or one can be considered maladjusted. I think the movie is too simplistic–real people are much more complex than that.

  2. Yes, the movie was quite simple, but I still found it enjoyable. Perhaps I did not convey how the movie normalized feelings of vanity, aging, shallowness and anger. Even though the characters were unidimensional, it was still nice to see the human condition portrayed on screen in a way in which the ugliness of these character traits were there despite the fact that the characters also felt so familiar and “part of the family.” Mary’s anger seemed a reasonable response to her childhood adversity, in the same way that Kate’s plainness seemed to be a response to her childhood trauma. The divergence of coping skills highlighted just how complicated childhood adversity can be. Thanks for your comments.

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