Please Give, Nicole Holofcener’s most recent film, opens with a panoply of breasts. They offer themselves unabashed, fragmented in montage, for scrutiny and appraisal. The array is set to The Roches’ self-deprecating tune ‘No Shoes,’ and the track’s wittily constructed catalogue of grievances (‘I had no shoes and I complained/Until I met a man who had no feet’) provides an unsettling though comedic foundation upon which Ms Holofcener builds. The women in this montage are submitting their breasts to the cold machinery of the mammogram, and the pathos inherent in the potential for impending doom (one of the characters later describes breasts as ‘tubes of potential danger’) is a palpable texture here. The wryly intelligent commingling present in this opening sequence is a hallmark of Holofcener’s work; as a filmmaker she makes finely wrought, articulate comedies of anxiety and malaise in which women take centre stage, and Please Give is one of her best.

Catherine Keener is also a mainstay in Holofcener’s oeuvre, and has featured in Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2002) and Friends With Money (2006). In Please Give she plays Kate, a middle-aged, wealthy New Yorker who grapples unsuccessfully with her overwhelming sense of bourgeois guilt. Kate and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) own a store specializing in midcentury Modern furniture, which they stock with the belongings of the recently deceased. They have a recalcitrant teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who criticizes her parents for being vultures. Kate’s sense of guilt over profiting from the bereavement of others is only heightened by the presence of Andra (Ann Guilbert), her terminally rancorous nonagenarian neighbour, whose apartment Kate and her husband have bought but cannot redevelop until she dies. Andra has two granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a crushingly shy radiology technician who cares for her grandmother; and Mary (Amanda Peet), a cold, churlish cosmetologist who cultivates a fearsomely dark tan to apparently camouflage the frigidity of her personality. The sisters live together in a grim little apartment, eating microwave dinners in front of the television together and occasionally bickering.

This scenario is coloured by Kate’s all-consuming guilt about being well off and exploiting people when they’re at their most vulnerable. Her guilt manifests itself in mortifyingly awkward and often futile acts of charity, and Holofcener draws much comic appeal from these deftly crafted scenes of embarrassment and chagrin. The film, like all of Holofcener’s work, is not propelled by the drama inherent in the narrative, for although there is a romance, a betrayal and a death in the course of Please Give, none of these events take the spectator entirely by surprise. Instead, Holofcener relies on the strength of her characters and the dynamism of her writing to woo audiences into a deeper sense of involvement with the text, and her screenplay is extraordinarily trenchant in places. Her writing is at its most astute when Kate and Alex are joking intimately or waxing tense in the creased expanse of their marriage, or when Rebecca and Mary squabble pettily over the best way to microwave their dinner. Holofcener also has an almost-Shakespearean talent for verbal barbs; and the thorns are sharp in Please Give.

Please Give is excellently cast, and Catherine Keener as Kate sets the tone for the film, turning an often infuriatingly narcissistic and neurotic panic-monger into a nuanced and engaging protagonist. Ann Guilbert is terrifyingly good as the irascible, diminutive Andra, and flavours her performance with a sense of frustrated loss – as though determined to loathe everything and everyone only because she has forgotten how to experience pleasure. Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall give similarly strong performances.

This film is a clever, subtle and at times quite humorous exploration of the everyday minutiae of a handful of intimately drawn women’s lives. Holofcener’s characters resist caricature, and despite being riddled with inadequacies the audience leaves the cinema feeling surprisingly reconciled to all of them.

Ken Knight is a Melbourne-based writer.