Let’s start with an analogy: Judd Apatow is to sexually hormonal geeks as to Nicole Holofcener is to hormonally distraught women. Both are fine examples of filmmakers who have zestfully zeroed in on a demographic. Of course, Apatow is huge now. I think Holofcener deserves to be big too. She’s all the more vital in an industry where the female perspective is paltry. (Quick, name ten female filmmakers!) It’s not that her estrogen-spiked films have more mature or better-behaved characters. In fact, “Lovely & Amazing” show that women can also be just as juvenile, clueless, crass, and self-absorbed as guys can be.

Consider Michelle Marks, played by Catherine Keener. She’s a housewife and a mother, who has not outgrown her “homecoming queen” persona. She doesn’t have a job and sticks to worthless arts and crafts. Her younger sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is a small-bit film actress. It’s a profession that has Elizabeth fixating on her own physical flaws. Their mother (Brenda Blethyn) hops on the vanity train as well, as she opts to follow her gut to rid of her gut through the magic of liposuction. Finally, there’s the wild card of the four: six year-old Annie (Raven Goodwin), the adopted daughter and sister. The obstinate child has adapted the family’s insecure neurosis. She is outspoken about her African-American race and her obesity.

The movie is naturally character-driven. There is not much of a plot; it’s an observation of these characters and their interesting dynamics. Holofcener’s aim is really capture a sense of reality; she neither glorifies nor bashes these female characters. What she does is catapulting them and preparing them to splat on the wall of reality. Yes, in many ways, this is a comedy. There’s an acquired fun in the snarky dialogue and luster in its gems of mini-insights.

For me, the film’s force is the acting. This is Catherine Keener’s best work; she blisters in funny. Her character is an aggravated and immature biatch, yet she manages to be still credible and engaging. Emily Mortimer, belying her girl-next-door looks, pulls off a bold and effortless performance, especially in the film’s most eye-opening scene. And Raven Goodwin, an unforgettable child actress, provides a commanding aura, ripping the spotlight from her co-stars.

I have to rank “Lovely & Amazing” a bit higher than “Friends with Money,” Holofcener’s 2006 film. Both are sharp, perceptive movies, but the compelling family dynamics in “Lovely” seems more special. The Annie character is physically an odd duck (she’s black and decades younger), but she’s very part of the family emotionally. At first, I cringed at the way Michelle, the oldest white sister, talks to Annie. I feared that she was being racist, until I realized it’s more of a typical friction between sisters. “Lovely & Amazing” is surprising. It’s not as racy, not as chick-flick-ish, not as soap-opera dramatic as one would think. Despite its sarcastic spit and cringe-worthy antics, “Lovely & Amazing” ultimately lives up to its two titular adjectives.

Grade: A-

Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blethyn, Raven Goodwin, Aunjanue Ellis, Clark Gregg, Jake Gyllenhaal, James LeGros, Michael Nouri, and Dermot Mulroney
Screenplay by
Nicole Holofcener
Directed by
Nicole Holofcener
Rated R for profanity and nudity