The fifteen-year-old Abby (Sarah Steele) is at what is called that awkward stage, but watching her in “Please Give” underscores the inadequacies of the euphemism.  Her acne is so bad that “it looks like it’s eating my face;” she spends part of one dinner with a pair of panties on her head.  She cannot — cannot! — find a pair of jeans that don’t make her look like a sausage.  Her mother, Kate (Catherine Keener) is not just woefully incapable of understanding, but preoccupied with her own demons.  So Abby determines to fix her acne by having a facial at one of those ubiquitous New York day spas, believably called Skinology.  The spa technician, who also happens to be the granddaughter of the bitter old woman who lives next door, begins to work away on her, removing zits from her forehead as the girl squirms and flinches under her probing fingers.  “This is a deep one,” the technician warns her, and the audience begins to squirm too.  Talk about cringe humor.

The writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for creating funny, excruciating moments like this onscreen that achieve something beyond the literal contours of the story.  No one who has seen “Lovely and Amazing” (2001) can forget that primal scene in which the neurotic, unhappy actress (Emily Mortimer), asks Dermot Mulroney to “be honest” in critiquing her body; she stands before him naked, skinny, awkward, hopeful.  “Please Give” is preoccupied with concerns exemplified by the pimple-squeezing scene:  just as places like Skinology feed off the deluded hopes of those with disposable incomes, Abby’s mother and father feed off dead people:  they buy mid-20th century furniture from the middle-aged children of the recently-deceased, people eager to jettison the awful stuff their parents sat on all those years.  It is precisely their furniture store’s profitability that has produced Kate’s profound, aimless sense of guilt.  But lacking any real outlet for it, she mostly atones by pressing sums of money on the homeless people outside their apartment.  Framing the boundaries of the story are questions of self-worth, the specters of death and selfishness, the possibility of joy, and our responsibility to others.  Like so many great French films, this one ricochets between these matters without offering simplistic messages or easy resolutions, leaving you to meditate on what you begin to see as profound matters.

The film is nearly stolen by the unapologetically self-centered Andra (Ann Guilbert), who at 90-something still lives as if everyone shares her pre-war ethos.  When she opens her birthday present, one of those old-lady pink embroidered sateen nightgowns, she refuses to wear it — or express thanks — because it’s “too nice.”  In a moment of one-upsmanship with another grandmother, she brags that people were often jealous of her because she was so smart, trumpeting that “people thought I was a schoolteacher.”  Almost immediately thereafter, she pronounces that her granddaughter’s (Rebecca Hall) new boyfriend is very handsome, but too short.  (This was such a vivid reminder of my own grandmother’s ugly manner of conversation that I found myself wondering whether everyone knows such a woman, or if I was the only person in the audience who found this dead-on.)  Embarrassing, stingy, imperious: she poses nothing but problems for her plain-faced, unhappy granddaughter as well as Kate and Alex next door, who have purchased her apartment and are waiting for her to die before they punch through the wall and create a luxurious en-suite master bedroom.  How should they — and we — feel about her?  Is Andra a mirror for the unhappy teenaged Abby?  A dose of reality for the guilt-ridden Kate?  A cross to bear for her granddaughter?

Because Holofcener’s films invariably feature prominent female characters they have often been characterized as “women’s films”; critics occasionally congratulate themselves for proclaiming that she “delves deeper than ‘chick flicks,'” as if she treads the same ground as “Sex and the City 2” (which, hello, was written and directed by a man).  For me, critics’ need to mark this distinction — “not just for girls!” — illuminates one of the problems with women in American film today.  It’s true that she punctuates her films with set-piece scenes that will hit deep nerves in female viewers, like Abby and Kate having one of those horrible mother-daughter fights as they shop for jeans — of course it’s while they shop for jeans.  But I maintain that “Please Give” is fundamentally concerned with profound issues that can’t be tidily dismissed as gender-specific, and if it had been directed by Bergman, Rohmer, or Woody Allen, no one would suggest otherwise.  In fact, I think it’s only due to Holofcener’s deep-seated directorial modesty that anyone feels the need to proclaim this “not just” a chick flick.  Because she is not willing to swagger her gifts — like so many women who, in Clay Shirky’s terms, refuse to behave as “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks,” “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so” — apparently critics feel the need to question whether her films should be relegated to the Lifetime Channel.

It seems apt that I’m also reading Doris Lessing’s Diary of a Good Neighbour right now, a riveting tale likewise concerned with selfishness, moneyed privilege, and caregiving.  As in “Please Give,” so many of the novel’s most emotionally fraught scenes occur in the claustrophobic spaces of apartments littered with the material signifiers of our selves.  The film and the book pair perfectly, with characters spewing awful statements at one another, interspersed with raw moments in which they try to offer one another something more true and generous.  Both ask, does our guilt cancel out our attempts at selflessness?  Are there costs in our efforts to create beautiful lives for ourselves — have we become unwilling to see human ugliness and comprehend death?

But Holofcener also wants us to laugh at ourselves and the innate ridiculousness of the Skinologies, our searches for good jeans, our battles with our mothers, and those moments in vintage stores when one says things like, “This is so bad it’s almost good. How much is it?”

When someone kidnaps a child — or several children, as is sometimes the case — our tendency is to respond by characterizing that person as the exception.  We tell ourselves he’s a pedophile, a psychopath, a serial killer, a freak.  He’s like the wolf of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale; this is no mere wild animal, but one who systematically sets out to trick a little girl and eat her.

The “Red Riding” trilogy produced by the UK’s Channel Four wants us to think of the wolf differently.  He is no exception; he is us, and he is eating us alive.  These films are scarily brilliant, appallingly violent, and so good I wanted to watch them again even before I’d finished watching.  Moreover, they are beautifully photographed — truly, some of the most creative and provocative cinematography I’ve seen in ages.

The first episode/film, “The Year of Our Lord 1974,” makes all other renditions of the 70s appear ersatz, like what “The Wire” did to “Law & Order.”  This is no “Life on Mars,” with its earnest fights against petty corruption in the Manchester police department of 1973, cross-cut with jumps into a groovy muscle car with the deliciously mouthy Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt.  There is no thrumping rock soundtrack, no glam anthems, not a single moment spent romanticizing the era.  The West Yorkshire of these films is filthy, perpetually raining, and unbearably claustrophobic, filled with dark tunnels, narrow stairwells, and dreary working-class 1970s homes filled with awful furniture and wallpaper.  It opens with the kidnapping of a little girl last seen wearing a red jacket and red Wellingtons, and shortly thereafter she is found dead, tortured, and with real swan’s wings sewn into her tiny back.  (All of the physical violence against children and women takes place offscreen.  This cannot be said for the violence against men — a decision that, frankly, was fine with me.)

Enter the cocksure young reporter, Eddie (Andrew Garfield), just back from starting his career in the South and feeling pretty good about himself as the local boy-made-good.  Who wouldn’t, with that terrific head of hair and his prettyboy pouty lips?  (For which we hate him immediately.)  He soon sniffs out that this is not the first little girl to go missing and pursues the serial-killer line of investigation despite the pushback he gets from the cops.  He’s right to do so — it’s a canny decision.  In contrast, his decision to pursue the little girl’s mother (Rebecca Hall, who won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress) is a bad choice, just like all his others.

Eddie wants to get to the heart of the problem, just like the well-intentioned Pete in “In the Year of Our Lord 1980” and John and Maurice in “1983,” but there is no wolf to be slaughtered, no exceptional villain, and no heroic woodsman to intervene just in time.  Eddie has no idea how much he’s bitten off.  The webs of corruption stretch everywhere, and these men will do anything to keep it that way.  Here the cinematography does its best work (and I would argue, done most effectively and exceptionally in “1974;” it’s a crime that Rob Hardy went unrecognized for it, though his colleague David Higgs won a BAFTA for his photography in “1983”).  Every single scene is shot from a slightly disorienting angle, moving our eye about these rooms and making us notice the discomfort.  At times the imagery is backed up by, of all things, some very slow and beautiful soul music, even more disconcerting given the grim and soulless world we’re watching.  View that imagery here, as Eddie is invited by the über-skeezy John Dawson (Sean Bean at his skeeziest) to enjoy the benefits of being on the take.  It’s not just the sideways views of the two men’s faces; it’s also the camera’s pauses to watch the rain as it rolls down the windows, both of which somehow don’t allow you to forget the rain after the camera returns to their faces:

By “1980” the corrupt establishment has really accomplished something, and they’re getting very rich.  “To us all!” they toast.  “And to the North! where we do what we like.”  (This line is just not effective textually without that accent.) But by now the cops among them are faced with the still-unsolved Yorkshire Ripper killings of maybe 13 prostitutes, and the Home Office sends Pete (Paddy Considine) and his two most trusted detectives to help.  Instead of helping, however, they find the West Yorkshire police resent them, lie to them, and conceal evidence — and for good reason, as it turns out.  Worst of all, we begin to suspect that a haggard-looking gay teenaged rentboy, aptly named B.J., is not just being overlooked as a source of information — his life is in serious danger for what he knows, although we’re not sure who’s going to come after him.  By “1983,” B.J. is sleeping in his garage space with a shotgun in his lap for fear of his life.

If you had recorded my brain activity while watching these films, all areas of my brain would have lit up:  it was the elements of fable juxtaposed with gritty thriller.  The swan’s wings, the little girl’s red jacket, the fantasy of escape and renewal; even near the very end, a voiceover tells us in a singsong, let me tell you a story voice, “Here is the one / that got away / and lived to tell the tale.”  It was also the perfect performances by Hall, Considine, the seriously under-used Maxine Peake, and David Morrissey (here, concealing his Hollywood handsomeness behind that uninspired ‘stache, glasses, and mousy brown hair), the unforgiving scenery, the shadowy women, the lost children.  And it was the films’ contrast with one of my favorites, “North and South,” in which sharp regional differences are assuaged by the growing understanding and love between its two protagonists.  In “Red Riding” there is no love between North and South; the North is fiercely determined, indeed, to do “whatever we want,” the South be damned.  When one character voices the old saw, “The Devil triumphs when good men do nowt” (again, think of that accent making all the words emerge from the tongue-iest part of the throat), we know that this is mere folly.

One more thought.  The second film opens with scenes of street protests against the Yorkshire Ripper and complaints against the police’s failure to catch him; but there are other signs as well.  Women are filmed carrying signs that say “No Means No,” “Men Off the Streets!”, and “All Sex is Rape,” and graffiti on a wall pronounces “Men Are the Enemy.”  The films have no room for this kind of feminist rage, except implicitly and extremely subtly.  No, this is a trilogy about men, the wolves and the woodsmen who go in search of the little girl in the red jacket and red Wellies.  Oh well.