Fables and Proverbs in Please Give


SPOILERS. What are our motives for charity? Does giving out of guilt cancel out the good we do? Nicole Holofceners’ award-winning screenplay explores motives behind acts of charity with Please Give. She may not have intended them but I saw lots of little fables in her storytelling.

Kate and her husband Alex run a trendy mid-century furniture store on 10th Ave. They purchase items at estate sales for a fraction of what they make reselling them.  Alex gleefully explains to customers who ask where they get their stuff, “we buy them from the relatives of dead people.” Business is good enough for Kate and Alex to purchase the apartment of their 91-year-old neighbor Andra so they can expand their home after she dies. Kate feels so guilty that much of her life hinges on the grief of others that she becomes obsessed with charity.

Kate’s comfortable lifestyle and wealth add to her guilt. She keeps $5 bills to hand out to homeless people she encounters on the street. She tries to teach her daughter Abby compassion by imagining difficulties and tragedies for the people they encounter on the street. For all her compassion Kate seems less interested in the individuals that need help than she is interested in being someone who gives.

Kate’s volunteering efforts fail. When Kate tries to volunteer at a nursing home and later a recreation center but is overwhelmed by sadness. Kate can’t process that people in nursing homes or children with Downs might experience moments of legitimate joy and accomplishment. She’s so grieved that she can’t interactive positively with the people she is there to help. Through her acts of charity Kate wants reassurance that she’s a “good person.”

The lives of Andra and her two granddaughters act as a fable for Kate. There were once two sisters, one selfish and one giving. Rebecca, the giving sister, shows up every day to walk her grandmother Andra’s dog, clean, pick up groceries, hang out and watch TV with her. When her grandmother is negative she tries to interject positive thoughts but it’s obvious she’s worn down by the constant barrage of bitterness. She keeps showing up because Andra is her grandmother and she recognizes that she needs help.

Her sister Mary takes care of herself and doesn’t feel an obligation to help Andra since Andra is so unpleasant. Mary is rather caustic herself and, in the wake of a recent breakup, is even more brittle. She’s self-centered and thinks first about how she is affected. Like Andra she often sees the negative side of situations and tends to blow small issues out of proportion. She doesn’t recognize it but she’s well on her way to becoming her grandmother.

Please Give explores the effect of Kate’s obsession on her marriage and her relationship with her daughter as well. As the family interacts with Andra and her granddaughters they are affected by their attitudes.

Mary comes off as the stronger of the sisters. Her rejection of Andra lines up with how Kate, Alex, and Abby see her so they initially relate to her though they admire Rebecca’s faithfulness toward Andra. Neither Alex nor Abby understand what’s going on with Kate and both feel shut out, but when each in turn look to Mary for support they both walk away damaged but wiser.

Abby and Rebecca form a comfortable friendship in which they walk the dogs and talk. They both seem to be searching for a realistic yet positive position for viewing the world. Rebecca and Kate share the trait of compassion. They have an exchange in which they reassure one another that they are “good people” because of it. Rebecca might well find herself falling into Kate’s pattern of guilty obligation until a different fable comes into her life in the form of one of her patients.

Once upon a time there were two old women, one bitter and the other encouraging. While Andra spews anger and rejects beauty, even in the face of illness Mrs. Portman keeps a positive outlook and speaks encouragement into the lives of those around her. She notices Rebecca and introduces her to her grandson Eugene who, like Rebecca, is a part-time caregiver for his grandmother. Mrs. Portman’s realistic, compassionate, positive style gives Rebecca a role model worth following. Mrs. Portman bears the problems she faces with realistic grace but doesn’t create problems where none exist.

While Kate is compassionate she is also negative. Both Kate and Andra overreact to life experiences, Kate with sadness and Andra with anger.

There is a scene in which Abby and Rebecca are walking dogs and carrying bags containing dog poo. Abby observes how odd it would be if they were walking down the street carrying bags of poo without the dogs. That’s sort of what Kate does. She carries the poo even when she has no dog. Andra and Mary may have dogs to walk but they refuse to enjoy the walk or the conversation, they just see the bags of poo.

Please Give reminded me that the attitude for giving is both generous and refreshing. These Proverbs seem like appropriate conclusions to the fables in Please Give:

Proverbs 16:24 Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.

Prov. 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.

Prov. 11:25 The generous will prosper. Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

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