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Six films and three decades into her career, Nicole Holofcener is not someone many people would describe as their favourite film-maker, yet she’s among the most consistent, endearing American auteurs at work. Holofcener is unfairly easy to underestimate, as are many writer-directors (women, especially) who are more interested in small foibles than grand gestures, whose formal modesty belies its precision, and who are content to reflect the world as they know it rather than build extravagant alternatives.
The joys of Holofcener’s cinema – her perceptive comedy of emotional aches and pains, her sheepish middle-class self-critique, and the true, tender, unguarded work she gets from actors – are virtues more readily praised on small screens than big ones. Sure enough, like many top female directors stuck with long, funding-deprived lapses between features (six in 22 years, not a figure most film-makers arrive at by choice), she’s filled the time with extensive work on prestige TV, including stints on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
So it’s not surprising to see Netflix now backing Holofcener’s film output too, though it means that the warm, rueful The Land of Steady Habits, her sixth feature, and her first in five years, has gone down even more quietly than her previous work. It premiered recently at the Toronto film festival; two days later it was up on Netflix. That’s a quick turnaround even for the new model of distribution, and one that barely gave the film – itself swamped at Toronto by higher-profile attractions, including Netflix’s own Venice Golden Lion winner Roma – time to establish itself before joining the streaming giant’s vast carousel of content. (Holofcener got more attention at the festival for a film she scripted, the Marielle Heller-directed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is rustling up Oscar talk for Melissa McCarthy.)
But The Land of Steady Habits deserves a moment’s pause, for it’s humbly lovely. Where her previous films have been thoughtfully, self-effacingly female-centred, Holofcener’s latest proves her no less humane and astute a chronicler of masculine crisis. It’s powered by a performance of forlorn, not always sympathetic, vulnerability by Ben Mendelsohn as a recently divorced Connecticut dad, held in limbo by the glum realisation that nobody really needs him any more. Mendelsohn is one of the great actors of our time, especially when emotionally cornered rather than given room to showboat. Holofcener’s wise, droll, sometimes pinchingly accurate writing serves him beautifully, and he in turn gives her the kind of soulful presence on which to hang a story of incidents rather than events.
Those who stumble into the film may be sufficiently charmed to seek out its maker’s other work, so it’s a shame Netflix has only 2006’s Friends With Money to offer. This bittersweet study of a female friend network subtly split by financial differences, with one of Jennifer Aniston’s most acute dramatic turns, is a good starting point. You can head to Amazon or iTunes for Please Give and Enough Said – the former a wry satire of middle-class guilt, the latter a heartsore midlife romcom with exquisite chemistry between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. But it’s sad to see Holofcener’s earliest, tangiest films – the complementary ensemble pieces Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing – unavailable to stream anywhere.
It’s gratifying to see a major brand like Netflix supporting independent female voices such as Holofcener’s at a time when many more traditional studios aren’t willing to hear them. (In a comparable acquisition, Netflix is also releasing Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’s long-awaited, Sundance-acclaimed follow-up to 2007’s Oscar-nominated The Savages, next month.) Let’s hope they can elevate these film-makers’ back catalogues too.
Also new to streaming & DVD this week
A Prayer Before Dawn (Altitude, 18)
The familiar forms of both the boxing drama and the prison drama get a stunning pummelling in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s visceral, bloodied Muay Thai spectacle.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Disney, 12)
We’ll never know quite what Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s vision for this lightweight spinoff might have been without studio intervention, but it must have had more character than Ron Howard’s limping romp.
The Breadwinner (StudioCanal, 12)
A mature family film about childhood survival under the Taliban: come for the richly stylised old-school animation, stay for the emotionally piercing storytelling.
The Ciambra (Peccadillo Pictures, 15)
Jonas Carpignano’s updated spin on Italian neorealism has earthy compassion to spare in its docudrama portrait of the Calabrian Roma underworld, but its plotting is rather cluttered.
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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Streaming: in praise of Nicole Holofcener | Film