The writer-director Nicole Holofcener is almost a revolutionary by the standards of modern Hollywood. Her spiky, articulate comedies pay close attention to women; she likes them, sometimes indulges and pokes fun at them, but is always interested in them for their own sake, not because they're attached to this or that man. It's impossible to overstate how unusual this is in an industry that doesn't want to – doesn't know how to – create serious roles for women. Goldie Hawn described the three ages of actress in The First Wives Club 14 years ago – "Babe, then District Attorney, then Driving Miss Daisy" – and not much has changed since.
Holofcener's three features, Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2002) and Friends with Money (2006), are of a piece, comedies of anxiety and dissatisfaction that put women front and centre, foremost among them the great Catherine Keener, who might almost be her muse. Appropriately, she stars in Holofcener's latest and best film, Please Give, a funny-sad tale of charity and its discontents. Keener plays Kate, a well-to-do New Yorker who worries herself to distraction about society's unfortunates and expresses it in compulsive handouts to street people. She and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a vintage furniture store whose stock is mostly acquired from houseowners clearing out the supposed junk of an older generation. In short, "we buy from the children of dead people".
The profit they make on these transactions sharpens her sense of guilt; so too does their next-door neighbour Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a grouchy 91-year-old lady whose apartment they have bought but cannot redevelop until Andra vacates it – ie. dies. To assuage her conscience Kate runs errands and throws her a birthday party, where they meet the old lady's two grand-daughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who looks after "grandma", and Mary (Amanda Peet), who doesn't. This encounter, where everyone knows the score yet only Mary feels able to tell it like it is, typifies Holofcener's writing; she has a fantastically acute ear for abrasiveness and embarrassment, yet she's alive to the goodness of people whose patience has been sorely tried. Rebecca, for instance, knows that her grandmother is a bit of a witch, but as a radiology technician who checks women for breast cancer (the film opens, startlingly, with a montage of mammograms) she also understands the fear and vulnerability of the ill, and the aged.
The film develops "skin" as its physical and metaphorical motif. Rebecca sees beneath the skin, in both senses, while sister Mary gives facials at a salon and is obsessed with tanning. Kate's 15-year-old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) has a face boiling with zits, and amusingly turns up at dinner with a pair of pants covering her head. She's at an awkward age, raging at Kate for her charitable spasms when she won't give her own daughter 200 dollars for a pair of cool jeans. Character is indicated in degrees of dermatological toughness. Kate is so thin-skinned that almost everything needles her conscience, but when she volunteers for charity work – a retirement home, a Downs syndrome centre – we see how her weepy sensitivity is quite unsuited to "giving". She's a decent person, but she's also a compassion sponge. At the other end of the scale, Andra has grown such a thick skin she no longer hears her own rudeness – even great age does not excuse your reacting to a gift with "What use is this to me?" There's a very sad scene towards the end when Rebecca drives her out to the countryside to see the wonderful motley of autumn leaves blazing across the horizon: Andra, though, keeps her back turned, refusing the loveliness of nature. Like Ben Stiller's malcontent Greenberg last week, she seems determined never to be charmed by anyone, or anything.
The film, it must be said, is not overloaded with drama. Two of the characters have an affair, not altogether plausibly. Someone dies, not altogether unexpectedly. Holofcener depends on the lure of character and feeling to keep her audience involved, and her writing is so confident and incisive that in the end it's no hardship for us to submit. She also happens to be brilliant with actors. Keener, as ever, leads the mood of the film, and makes this flaky, exasperating worrywart very human and watchable. I didn't recognise Ann Morgan Guilbert, despite her distinguished career in TV, but her performance as the unloveable nonagenarian Andra is note-perfect, and rather chilling: she is exactly the sort of old person you never want to be. Best of a strong bunch is Rebecca Hall, who uses her gawky frame and quiet voice to touching effect; she doesn't smile for a long time here, crushed by her own shyness and her grandmother's terminal grumpiness, but when she eventually does it seems all the sweeter for being so hard-won. Her moment of empathy with Kate at the end, suggesting they are sisters under the skin, is a little rainbow after a long emotional downpour.
Holofcener's women are the kind who accept that life is more about failings and imperfection than about having everything you want (cf. Sex and The City); indeed, if Kate had everything she wanted she'd probably expire from the guilt. Please Give is too intelligent and wry to put a gloss on things, and it declines the easy upbeat of an epiphany. If it does soften a little, that's just a bit of grace Holofcener has earned. Few film-makers are as beady on the gap between what people would like to be and what they actually do – and hardly any are as funny.