One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Sundance in full swing, we’re looking back at some of the best directorial debuts that premiered at the festival.
In the mid-’90s there was a boomlet of independent movies about young-ish, usually urban-dwelling neurotic types making small talk, cracking wise, and often making pop-culture references. Two of the very best of this batch had the misfortune to come out within about a year of each other with extremely similar titles: Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming and Nicole Holofcener’s Walking And Talking. Holofcener’s first film premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, in a terrific class that included Welcome To The Dollhouse, Citizen Ruth, and Big Night.
Holofcener, a smart and perceptive writer, would go on to tell more complex stories with some of her later films like Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money, and Enough Said. But she started out with appealing simplicity, writing and directing an 85-minute movie that’s like the margins and in-between moments of a rom-com, full of throwaway conversations and moments of doubt. Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche) have been best friends since they were kids, but a slight distance forms between them when when Laura gets engaged, moving forward with her life in a way that melancholically single Amelia has not. Holofcener doesn’t push the two women too far apart too fast, instead focusing on the fractures in their other relationships. Laura starts to get impatient with her fiancé Frank (Todd Field, director of another Sundance darling, In The Bedroom), while Amelia gets surprisingly stuck on a Fangoria-reading, My Bloody Valentine-loving video store clerk, played by Kevin Corrigan as half-sensitive, half-goony. (“You don’t like those type of movies? I love ‘em if they’re well done,” he notes about a video of a gory bug-based horror picture.)
Holofcener has a way with working funny material into the comfort of familiar relationships. When Laura and Frank bicker in front of Amelia, the would-be third wheel tosses off a half-affectionate, half-snarky “You guys fight? Cool.” Refreshingly, Frank and Amelia aren’t at odds over Laura; they actually seem to like and even relate to each other. Keener, her trademark prickliness beginning to percolate, makes a winning urban-dwelling neurotic type.
Most of the movie is, true to its title, talky, but Holofcener stages the conversations well, and captures some non-verbal moments as well, like when she uses Liz Phair’s “Go West” to score a sort-of stalking scene. Despite its hallmarks of the bygone era of a certain sort of Sundance picture—a video store, Amelia’s classified-ads job, answering-machine mishaps—Walking And Talking maintains a low-key freshness and charm two decades on.
Availability: Walking And Talking is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local non-Kevin-Corrigan-employing video store. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.