This year’s holiday films have us visiting the same glittering, gourmet interiors we’re accustomed to in Nancy Meyers films, but in lieu of Diane Keaton giggling in bed with Jack Nicholson, in these upscale locations we find parents cradling their dying, hopeless children or discovering their lifeless bodies. Ben is Back and Boy Erased, both starring Lucas Hedges, are apart of this trend, as is Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as a father and son embroiled in the son’s years-long addition to meth. Though beautifully performed, Beautiful Boy fails to lend much gravitas or explore themes beyond the fraught parental relationship, and ends up feeling something like an after-school-special.
Among this family of devastating coming-of-age films, Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits surpasses its brothers, so to speak. It landed a few months ago on Netflix, but, taking place as it does in that fraught stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas, it is very much a holiday film.
Adapted by Holofcener from the 2014 novel by Ted Thompson, The Land of Steady Habits treads much of the same territory as Beautiful Boy and its compatriots. The difference is in sweep, scale, and penetration. The film concerns Anders Harris, whom we find on the tail-end of a-late-onset mid-life crisis, having left his remunerative job in finance, his decades-long marriage, and his enviable Westport, Connecticut home, maintained by said wife (played by the long-suffering Edie Falco).
The Land of Steady Habits includes a younger generation struggling to find their place and finding it, all too often, in narcotics. Anders’s son Preston is home living with his mother after graduating college and going through several stints at rehabs. He is working half-assedly at jobs arranged for him by his mother. The job delivering for the local liquor store comes with the benefit of bringing us behind the well-maintained exterior of all those New England manors.
Thompson’s novel is clearly indebted to the genteel Connecticut alcoholic-nymphomaniacs of the past, such as Cheever and Updike. “The land of steady habits,” is an unofficial motto of the state, which traditionally refers to the morality of is residents. In the film, this moniker also refers to a host of chemical habits, starting with alcohol and progressing into Xanax and PCP, to mention only a few of the drugs on regular display.
When we first meet Anders, he is lost in the aisles of one of those massive Bed, Bath & Beyond warehouses. “So many choices,” he muses ironically to one of the women he meets in the various tchotchke emporia of Westport, Connecticut in the 21st century. Anders has resigned from his lucrative financial job in disgust, citing the greed and emptiness of such pursuits, only to spend his days aimlessly shopping for knick-knacks. If there’s one thing Holofcener has never allowed her protagonists it’s any brand of grandeur. In Holofcener’s hands, the act of heroic renunciation, defining for independent “mavericks” of ’60s and ’70s cinema (I’m thinking of films like Five Easy Pieces or Easy Rider), has dwindled to the tedious reality of filling up aimless days and decorating the grim post-divorce condo.
The Land of Steady Habits takes place among couples who have known each other for decades and helped raise one another’s kids. One of the few sweet aspects to this generally melancholic tale is how reliably the parents step in when they can to comfort and guide their neighbor’s lost children. And by “lost children,” I’m talking about people in their late-twenties, most of them in the grips of addictions of one form or another. The crisis at the center of The Land of Steady Habits lies with an artistic, back-talking young man named Charlie, the son of a couple close to Anders and his ex-wife. The fact that Charlie, with all his talent, can’t think of anything better to do than lose himself in drugs and ultimately shoot himself in the woods is the tragedy at the heart of this low-key “comedy.” (Like Nic of Beautiful Boy, Charlie creates edgy graphic novels in his notebooks — seemingly the sign of the millennial literateur. In Charlie’s case, the subject is a canine cosmonaut sent into space to die; in Nic’s, a boy who really likes drugs.)
While Beautiful Boy wears its importance as a Film About Generational Drug Dependency Crisis on its sleeve, and in its credits, Holofcener is allergic to generalities. She has long been the maven of uncomfortable, small truths, and it turns out that makes her an excellent person to take on the grittiness of addiction. In her hands the struggles of Preston and Charlie with substances are not a neurological mystery to be deciphered by a specialist in a white coat. It’s not really a puzzle at all–the only jobs we see available to these young men are: some mysterious but lucrative job in a family LED light bulb business; delivering booze for the local liquor store; and tutoring immigrants for slightly above minimum wage. Even the consumerist satisfactions of their Boomer parents are largely unavailable to them, so they double down on the drinking and drugging which are also, the film makes clear, a steady habit of their elders.
Holofcener interrogates relationships, person-to-person, but also person-to-real-estate and person-to-money, topics that we are used to being glided over in the movies. Her mother married Woody Allen’s longtime producer Charles H. Joffe when Holofcener was eight, and she got her first credits on Allen projects. His influence continues to appear in her work — like Allen, she probes romance and distress among the moneyed creative class, is very talky, and lightly comedic. But where Allen tends to gloss over the source of these beautifully appointed New York apartments, she faces these problems head-on. The 2010 film Please Give is spent almost entirely on unwholesome schemes to acquire the apartment next door belonging to a sickly 96-year-old.
One gets the feeling she learned just as much from her producer step-father as Allen himself about the business of making films. A woman director who has worked more or less continuously for the last quarter century, Holofcener has achieved that rare feat by a careful attention to keeping her projects small, with a tight band of actors who have risen with her. While some directors in full-auteur mode bemoan the ascent of Netflix, a filmmaker like Holofcener has been quietly securing steady work there, directing episodes of Orange Is the New Black and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Enlightened.
The evidence continues to mount that the best of what has traditionally been considered film is now occurring on cable television and streaming services like Netflix. The new Coen Brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, uses the new platform to shape the story, in this case a revisionist look at the episodic television Western. Meanwhile, the new Alfonso Cuarón film Roma is inspiring anguish from cinéastes insistent that to view on a television screen is to surrender to inferiority forever. The shift from auteur to showrunner, however, comes with some significant advantages, however. In an industry where it seemed women were forever to be seen and not heard, Netflix has created space for wry, idiosyncratic voices like Tig Notaro, Jenji Kohan, Maria Bamford, Tina Fey, and Nicole Holofcener.