Robert Mixa reviews the movie,
Please Give, demonstrating the way that it lays bare the lies that we construct in order to evade the truth of ourselves.
Most of us have distorted perceptions of ourselves, situations, and people with whom we are involved. Since this is such a dominant feature of human existence, we must ask why we are not able and/or refuse to see ourselves as we are really are. Operating from the assumption that many of our perceptions of ourselves are distorted, Please Give is about not seeing correctly and the necessity of having others help us conform ourselves to reality. It is a story about characters who get glimpses of reality but numb themselves to it due to the pain that accompanies it. This numbing process takes place by the characters constructing a distorted narrative about themselves and the situation that causes them pain in order to justify themselves. However, these narratives fall apart in the end. Reality always stares us down, compelling us to face the facts. But the purpose of seeing the truth is not simply to embarrass us and leave us in despair but that we may hear the call to love, the unselfconscious activity that leads to redemption. Please Give is full of the embarrassment of being exposed, but it dramatically shows how each character must be exposed in order to see aright and be healed so that they may properly love.
Please Give begins with viewing mammograms. Breast after breast, we get the point that this movie will be about exposure, vulnerability, and facing painful truths. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is a mammogram technician who sees the danger of having breasts everyday. She has chosen to live a secluded life in order to avert the possible dangers in the give and take of relationships. She operates from fear, but she gradually develops trust by saying ‘yes’ to a proposition from the grandson of one her clients. Rebecca finally sees what it is like to be in a relationship by entering into its flow. This entails the giving of herself in a way that is conducive to her full flourishing.
Romans 7:19, “For what I do is not the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want,” perfectly sums up the tensions of Kate (Catherine Keener). She sells antique furniture with her partner, Alex (Oliver Platt), which they pillage from the apartments of the deceased. They live comfortably in Manhattan, but Kate feels guilty about the suffering of others. The desire to live comfortably and her concern for the people she believes are suffering does not sit well in her. Kate has numerous conflicts of intention: She wants to get more furniture from dead people while sensing this to be wrong. She wants to be friends with her elderly neighbor while suppressing her real intention of waiting for her neighbor to die so she can expand her apartment into the space her neighbor now occupies. She wants to help the homeless, feeling guilty about her relatively comfortable life, but she doesn’t want to buy her daughter expensive jeans. She wants to give her time to help those she feels bad for, often searching for volunteer positions, while the people who need her love most are the people already in her life. She is seeking to be charitable while not understanding the reality of her situation and where her love ought to be directed. At a tragic point in the movie, she admits to feeling trapped in her conflicting desires, seeing no hope of escape. She realizes the absurdity of her desires. However, once she starts to direct her concern and the giving of herself to where it properly belongs, a restoration of harmony comes back into her life and the lives of those closest to her. Seeing what she was meant to do and doing it brings her the peace she was seeking. She had charity, but it needed to be informed by the truth.
On the other hand, her elderly neighbor, the grandma of Rebecca and Mary (Amanda Peet), thinks she is quick to see the truth of things, often telling it to others in a harsh bluntness. But her perception is missing something vital. She does not seek the truth for the sake of love, making her truth-telling cruel and alienating. Hence, it is no surprise that her daughter committed suicide and her two granddaughters are reluctant to help her. Her lack of love has distorted her and those around her. Accompanying Rebecca, her new boyfriend and his grandma on a trip to see the leaves changing color in upstate New York, she tells them how sharp she is and why, due to others’ jealousy of her, that has resulted in her isolation. When they arrive at their destination, they are disappointed by the view, but all of them, except Rebecca’s grandma, turn the other way, seeing the beauty they came for. Rebecca tells grandma to turn around, but grandma does not hear her. Ironically, the grandma, who claims to see all, does not see what they see because she does not hear and turn the other way. In spiritual terms, the grandma does not undergo metanoia because she does not hear the words spoken by her loving granddaughter.
Alex suffers from acedia. In this regard, he is the antithesis of Kate. He does what he wants without thinking about how his actions affect others. Sensing that he has no desire to become a better person, it is no surprise when he spontaneously has an affair with Mary, Rebecca’s sister. He habitually continues the affair without a sense of doing anything wrong; he’s entirely blind to reality. He hides more and more of his life from Kate, living a life behind closed doors. When he decides to end the affair, he tries to justify himself by appealing to the rationalization that sometimes an affair may improve one’s marriage. But this is another attempt to numb himself to the reality of what he has done. He doesn’t see the gravity of his actions until his daughter, coming back from a visit to the salon at which Mary works, asks him why he has been visiting Mary. This question breeds in him a horror of his errant ways.
Mary believes that there is nothing wrong with her and, like her grandma, she makes it her priority to be as blunt as possible with others. She forces them to face their strangeness while she refuses to face hers, the strangest of them all. As the one most in need of exposure, she refuses to be vulnerable, finding consolation in the most abnormal behavior. Lurking in the background is a reality that Mary is trying to repress; she was dumped and her ex is currently dating a girl she is jealous of. She ends up habitually going into the shop at which her ex’s new girlfriend works, never buying anything but pretending to be interested while she sizes her up. Finally, it takes the bluntness of this girl, wanting to know why Mary frequently comes into the store never buying anything, for Mary to face up to the fact that she is stalking her. She then sees her own embarrassing strangeness. Because of this, she begins to appreciate the love Rebecca has always given her despite her numerous faults.
Finally, there is Kate’s daughter and her acne. The condition of her skin is very bad, making the nagging self-consciousness of adolescence even worse. Initially she tries to hide when people visit the apartment, but she eventually ventures out to get a facial from Mary, but that destroys her face. She should have let the acne naturally pass away, but her obsession with getting rid of it only made it worse.
All of these characters’ self-justifying narratives aim at numbing themselves to the embarrassment of reality, habitually wearing masks that encourage strange behavior. It takes someone outside of the distortion to make them aware of it.
Like the mammogram, the characters have to face the reality of their lives. According to the Christian understanding, this entails encountering the Face of Christ, Eternal love and Absolute Truth,
who compels us to see our true self and the real nature of our relationships, forcing us to discard our silly masks. He is the “extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement.” 
This is the force pulling on all of us. Please Give demonstrates that people only flourish when truth and love inform every facet of their lives. There is no love without truth, and there is no truth without love. In his person, Christ is the paradigmatic form of truth and love in communion. Insofar as we mirror him will the rift between truth and love be reconciled and healed. He is our liberator from all distortion; he is our guide.
Robert Mixa is the Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Benedict XVI, Caritas In Veritate
Benedict XVI, Caritas In Veritate, Intro.