The film industry is still a world dominated by men, and we’ve seen little progress in recent years. This is especially true in the directing field, where successful women are an exception. Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Kelly Reichardt, and others have done well, but it’s a short list. This landscape doesn’t make it easy, but Nicole Holofcener has found a way to thrive. Her latest film Enough Said was a well-deserved hit with critics and audiences last year. It stands out because Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ lead character is a type rarely seen on screen. Holofcener has been writing complex female characters throughout her career in movies like Lovely and Amazing and Friends with Money. This trend goes back to her first film Walking and Talking, which provides sharp early roles for Catherine Keener and Anne Heche.
Keener and Heche star as Amelia and Laura — long-time friends and former roommates that are drifting apart. Laura is getting married and focused on becoming a therapist, while Amelia is still looking for love. New York City isn’t an easy place for a single woman, and Amelia’s luck isn’t great. She starts dating Bill (Kevin Corrigan), a video store clerk who’s very different but also a nice guy. Laura inadvertently ends the relationship with a poorly timed answering machine message that’s straight out of a sitcom. What’s surprising is the way that it doesn’t feel like a plot contrivance. Keener and Corrigan both sell the hurt from the experience, and neither character is wrong. It’s similar to the misunderstanding that drives the plot of Enough Said. Holofcener finds ways to use familiar twists without losing our interest. It helps to have strong actors that can sell the material; Keener has rarely been better than in this charming role.
The story focuses on Amelia’s quest for love, but this isn’t a standard romantic comedy. The most important relationship is between the two women, who are both struggling yet aren’t connecting. Neither is really listening to the other, and it leads to frustration instead of warm support. Holofcener grasps the difficulties in maintaining friendships as we get older and life grows more complicated. Marriage is just one challenge to keeping their bond in place. Amelia’s old cat has cancer, and this situation isn’t played for laughs like you might expect. It’s an adult look at lives that aren’t getting any easier. It isn’t a melodramatic slog, however. There’s a breezy atmosphere that makes even the difficulties feel relaxed. It’s that light atmosphere that keeps everything believable and never grows too heavy.
Walking and Talking was released in 1996 during the height of the indie surge in the ‘90s. So many films came out around this time and have a similar tone. The story moves through the dialogue, and it’s fun to just spend time with these characters. Holofcener keeps the camera work simple and recognizes that the draw is spending time with Keener, Heche, Liev Schreiber, and Kevin Corrigan. Brief moments like Amelia smoking pot with Laura’s fiancé or going to a horror convention with Bill work because they’re so under played. The music from Billy Bragg adds to this warm atmosphere; you never get the sense that anything really terrible will happen to these characters. They may stumble or do something dumb, but everything will be okay by the end. It’s one reason this indie gem feels so refreshing 18 years later.
Walking and Talking is currently streaming on Netflix in the U.S.