#20: Walking and Talking
(USA, 1996; dir. Nicole Holofcener; scr. Nicole Holofcener; cin. Michael Spiller; with Catherine Keener, Anne Heche, Todd Field, Liev Schreiber, Kevin Corrigan, Vincent Pastore, Randall Batinkoff, Joseph Siravo, Lawrence Holofcener, Lynn Cohen, Brenda Thomas Denmark, Allison Janney, Alice Drummond)
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Frequently in these entries, I have shared ideas about film that I had for the first time while watching these specific movies, or slants on the material that felt particular to my experience. I can't easily do that with Walking and Talking, which I don't have any more ideas about than I do about my favorite blanket, my childhood bear, my favorite soup when I'm sick. They're always there, I regularly need them, and if you took them away from me, I wouldn't forgive you.

That isn't to say that Nicole Holofcener's determinedly modest but warmly realized movie somehow resists serious criticism, which isn't what this Favorites feature encompasses anyway. We all know that films made by women about women, especially low-key comedy-dramas, can get easily written off as niche-market trifles, not to be confused with art. Walking and Talking has a perfectly legitimate claim as art. Filmmakers could learn plenty from how Holofcener shapes dialogue-driven scenes around unusual beats, beginnings, and endings, supported by actors perfectly syncopate to her quotidian milieu. You really feel you're dipping into lives that precede and exceed the script. Holofcener might even learn from herself: I don't think she's made another movie that achieves its balance or engages its audience quite this simply or clearly. She usually takes on more characters and subplots than she needs (remember Toni Collette summoning the will to fire her maid in Enough Said?), and Walking and Talking is no real exception. Happily, every seeming diversion—a phone-sex storyline, an Alzheimer's storyline, a near infidelity, an ailing cat, even the shakiest bit with a prevaricating therapy patient—has a consistent pitch and register, acted with the same assurance and character specificity as the "bigger" storylines.

What accommodates all those borderline-distractions, what carries Walking and Talking to glory, what explains the fact that I sometimes keep it in my medicine cabinet instead of my DVD shelf (not really), is the tonal and observational precision of the major arc. Laura (Anne Heche) is getting married and her lifelong best friend Amelia (Catherine Keener) most assuredly isn't. For Amelia, worse than being nowhere close to matrimony is the sudden sense of distance from Laura, whose clothes she still borrows, whose every tic she knows. They still share ownership of a cat who, in a suggestive detail, lives full-time with Amelia. Now, rightly and wrongly, Amelia feels unimportant. The film is not 100% on either character's side: Laura can be negligent and curt, but Amelia is nuts if she thinks best-friendship doesn't shift when people get partnered up. More than that, Walking and Talking just doesn't think in terms of "sides." It watches as a situation unfolds, less like an outside observer than a phantom third friend, close to both Amelia and Laura but respectful of their unique bond with each other, which is garrulous and, at the same time, largely unspoken. There are laughs aplenty, a tear or two, a well-chosen soundtrack, a good Joan Osborne joke, and a series of expressive but inconspicuous costumes. There's Liev Schreiber, wonderfully winning and cast in a way few have tried since, as the raffish, amiable, slightly disappointing ex who wishes Amelia didn't still pine for him but is also doing everything in his power to keep her in his life. There's Kevin Corrigan as "the Ugly Guy," the anchor of one of the best-written B-plots I can remember in a movie like this, and a perfect counterweight to Walking and Talking's otherwise-generous empathy for Amelia's self-pity. Omg, the Ugly Guy. You will have a better life if you perform regular self-studies to ensure you are not the Amelia or the Laura in any narrative of the Ugly Guy.

In fact, Walking and Talking is pretty bountiful in its wisdom and role-modeling, despite lacking a single character you'd want to emulate all the time, or any evident impulse to Teach you anything. The scene where Schreiber's Andrew has to explain to Keener's Amelia why their past fling didn't pan out is unforgettably phrased, and was a well-timed lesson in tactful honesty that's lived with me ever since. So, too, has the inevitable quarrel between Amelia and Laura, which Holofcener refuses to protract into a whole chapter of the film, but which taught me a lot about fair, necessary, survivable tiffs with your intimates. I'm glad I haven't needed to heed this example too often, but I saw Walking and Talking as a deeply conflict-averse late adolescent, inclined toward gossipy backchanneling rather than candid confrontation when friendships weren't working. In that context, the way Laura and Amelia put each other on notice but also take their licks and nurse each other's wounds (including a few they've inflicted between them) genuinely braced me. This was a way to be an adult, however feckless or comic or error-prone. This was a permanent endorsement of the value in asking, to almost anyone, "What is it like for you?", when "it" could really be anything.

I declined to go see Walking and Talking in the theater, when three close friends, all women, were heading out to a weekend show. Having been so recently impressed by so many pronounced directorial stamps, I was generally not in the mood for movies that seemed, on the basis of the trailer, so bare at the level of technique. For similar reasons, I skipped Hettie Macdonald's Beautiful Thing that same spring in cinemas. I wanted queer stories that challenged the form. If women were going to hash out their differences in a script, I craved long Secrets & Lies takes, or knife-edge characterizations like the ones in Georgia. New York gals trading quips, barbs, and hugs before a sedate, self-effacing camera didn't interest me. I won't say I was an idiot, but I was kind of an idiot. In any case, I was overvaluing high style, which is just as risky as overvaluing simplicity or likeable characters. Now, I think: of all people to spurn a chance to see women converse, confide, and argue on screen! I would run to a movie like this now. And I'm glad I don't need all women in movies to be like Carol White or Sadie Flood or the ass-kickers in Bound or poor Katharine Clifton dying in a cave. I'm amazed and grateful in any movie to find women like the women I've known, loved, and learned from for most of my life. So I didn't discover Walking and Talking until it arrived on VHS, but I guess there's something apropos about that. From our very first meeting, the movie was a guest in my home, where it's now a permanent fixture—reassuring but not a puffball, tender and tough in its love.

Hey, Reader: What movie do you cozy up with when you need a lift? I'm all ears...

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