Nicole Holofcener builds career on complex, realistic women

As part of our Celebration Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

We always talk about the importance of seeing representation on screen—for women, it would mean seeing women on screen. This is also relevant when looking behind the scenes, too. When telling a woman’s story, it would seem only natural to have a director or showrunner who understands a woman’s perspective.

Nicole Holofcener has directed six feature films from Walking and Talking in 1996 to The Land of Steady Habits in 2018, almost all of which have received near-perfect reviews from the FF2 team. For each of these films she was also the screenwriter. It’s safe to say that she really knew her subject matter well. Although it’s not a necessity by any means, some directors choose to write the screenplays to their own movies. This choice is usually a decision between getting to know the characters on a deep level from their conception, versus running the risk of losing perspective when they’ve known the characters too well. In Holofcener’s case, it is of course the first one. Her direction shows an intimate understanding of her characters, and how their behaviours are affected by their words. 

Born in New York City, Holofcener grew up as one of the two children in a family of artistically-inclined professionals. Her mother was a set decorator and her birth father was an artist. After her mother remarried a film producer, the family moved to Hollywood. Her stepfather was able to help Holofcener in getting a production assistant job on one of Woody Allen’s productions in 1982. She studied at both New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and at Columbia University where she studied under director Martin Scorsese. 

Holofcener’s films feel authentic, stories about people like your coworker or your neighbor. Most of her work is based on stories that are very “real” and reflect the everyday lives of women from the middle class. Women can go into her movies expecting to see some of the common struggles of love, friendships, and life as an average woman. Although her films often follow an unconventional structure, they provide detailed character exploration that has been very much respected among critics. Unsurprisingly, most of her films also feature a female in the lead role.

Her 2006 movie Friends with Money is a good example of the type genre Holofcener focuses on. The film centers around four women who have been friends since as long as they can remember, each with their share of troubles. Jennifer Aniston stars as “Olivia”, a woman who is going through a midlife career crisis and decides to quit her job as a teacher to become a freelancing maid until she finds her calling. Her friends, despite being much better off financially, are also experiencing conflicts. Some have marriages that are falling apart, others are questioning life as a whole. There is definitely something that stays with the viewer after they’ve watched the movie—a lingering questioning of one’s own life. What really matters? We start off by pitying and questioning Olivia’s choices, but then when the home lives of her richer friends are revealed, we can’t help but wonder about materialism and see the effect that money has on people, their choices, and their relationships.

Though some consider the piece “static,” there is a truthful observation of each character. Holofcener has a talent for creating poignant insights from subtle plots and relatable dialogue, and this can be seen in many of the spats between the spouses in the film (the film also stars Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Catherine Keener). There was a lot to compliment in the actors’ performances and what Holofcener was able to bring out of them. The screenplay received a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award in 2006. 

Some other notable works include Lovely & Amazing (2002), Please Give (2010) and Enough Said (2013). But it was in 2018 that she and co-writer Jeff Whitty received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for  Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy. 

Aside from her work in film, she has also directed a number of television series that many know very well, including Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Orange is the New Black. Although I had seen many of these shows, I hadn’t put two and two together. Of course it made sense to bring on a director who is already invested in these types of stories to direct—these were completely up her alley!

Funny, sad, frustrating, and imperfect—these are all words that sum up real life for many moviegoers. These are also words that describe Holofcener’s stories. Even in her down-to-earth depictions of women’s complex relationships, she doesn’t forget to include strings of humor and various imperfections, regardless what stage of life they are in.

© Katusha Jin (05/19/2020) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand, and Catherine Keener in Friends with Money (2006)

Middle Photo: Nicole Holofcener directing Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Bottom Photo: Nicole Holofcener directing Catherine Keener in Please Give

Photo Credits: Alberto E. Rodriguez (© 2011 Getty Images); Mark Lipson; Lion’s Gate Entertainment © 2002 

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Katusha Jin
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As Contributing Editor at FF2 Media, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches interns. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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