Forget "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." Instead, see "Lovely and Amazing," an intelligent, humorous and honest story about women that's worthwhile for men, too -- and patronizes neither audience.
The film focuses on a white, upper-middle-class family of bright but neurotic females headed by Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn), an aging matriarch who undergoes liposuction because she is dissatisfied with her body. Grown daughter Michelle (Catherine Keener), an unfulfilled artist, wife and mother, takes a job at an hour photo shop; her sister, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), is a talented-but-timid actor who showers her love on homeless dogs. Meanwhile, mama Jane has adopted an overweight, African-American 8-year-old, Annie (Raven Goodwin), who is trying to figure out how and where she fits.
Director Nicole Holofcener's second feature film (her debut was "Walking and Talking," which also co-starred Keener) zeroes in on the ways in which women's crises of identity and self-esteem are particularly tied to insecurities about their bodies. Yet Holofcener never loses sight of the humor of life's contradictions, especially those that arise when men (be they lovers, husbands or co-workers) enter the picture. Hilarity ensues when 30-something Michelle has consensual sex with her 17-year-old boss (Jake Gyllenhaal), only to be caught by his mother.
"That's funny," Michelle deadpans. "I have that same robe."
Striking deeper is a mesmerizing scene in which Elizabeth demands that a first-time lover (Dermot Mulroney) critique her body. Simultaneously clinical and voyeuristic in its use of full-frontal female nudity, the sequence shows both Mortimer and her character exhibiting a jaw-dropping vulnerability.
Annie's presence allows Holofcener to show how early women's self-images begin to warp, while effecting a rare look at the confusion of growing up black in a white family. Annie straightens her hair, regularly fakes drowning in the pool (to draw attention?) and tells her appalled mom, "I'm going to tear my skin off. I want it to be the same as yours."
Despite their problems and failures, these women love and care for each other deeply. That bond gives them the resilience to share life's joys and pains and survive. Their idiosyncratic methods of coping deliver the film's humor (which saves them from the stigma of victimhood), while its slice-of-life situations and dialogue provide the drama.
Brits Blethyn and Mortimer are both convincing as Americans, and child actor Goodwin is a delight, her Annie stubborn and determined. Several of the male characters are either passive-aggressive or simply absent (the family patriarch, for example), but some attractive oddballs balance things out. The relationship between Michelle and her own daughter is little developed, yet this girl and Annie represent the unformed future -- their stories are yet to be told. Holofcener rejects patent solutions to dramatize life's messiness from inside out, in all its strange quirks.
"You're lovely and amazing," Jane reassures the diffident Elizabeth. So is this sparkling little gem of a movie.