Career Girls (1997)
*Career Girls* hones in on that unfortunate tendency of humans to remember most vividly and inescapably the most painful and unpleasant things. So it isn't misty watercolor memories that Hannah and Annie, reunited six years after college, dwell on, but painful memories. They don't remember the good times, if they ever really had any. Instead, their psyches pick at the scabbed-over traumas of their volatile friendship in a series of sharp and poignant reminiscences, revealing, in the process, that it wasn't fun and games that solidified their friendship, but rather that they stuck together as they stuck it out through difficulties and emotional travails that are painfully familiar and ordinary.
The signature traits of a Mike Leigh film -- the writer-director seemingly feels no obligation to entertain as he tells a story, nor does he seem inclined to stray from the everyday matter of human existence -- are what make his films so fascinating and, oddly, entertaining. *Career Girls* is an engrossing, peripatetic little comedy that is far more bitter than sweet. Its laughs, tinged with regret, irony and disbelief, are the sort shared between friends who have seen the worst of each other, and, often enough, the worst of the world. Spending time with Hannah and Annie really is like spending time with old friends, people you know too much about and who know too much about you -- the sort of people who are altogether missing in the artificially attractive fantasy world of movies. *Career Girls* smacks of realism like a smack in the head.
Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Linda Steadman) meet when the latter answers an ad for a roommate in college. It's an umpromising start. Hannah, tall and gawky, tends to angrily spit out streams of words in a hyperkinetic rant. She's as indiscriminate as a volcano, spewing destruction in all directions, but at the same time, she's not intentionally vicious. Anger seems to rise up out of her and explode before she can stop it. Squeaky-voiced little Annie is nervous and twitchy. Unlike Hannah, her traumas erupt not in words but in physical symptoms -- she is quite literally an open wound. Allergic to everything, her face scarred by dermatitis, she nervously smokes between puffs on her asthma inhaler, carrying her head tilted downward, never making eye contact. Somehow, Hannah and Annie connect through their woundedness. Their friendship doesn't produce any radical or artificial transformations of character -- they are not altered by each other, but sustained by each other.
The slim plot of *Career Girls* involves their reunion six years after college, as Annie visits Hannah in London. At first uneasy, just as they were ten years earlier, they gradually, over the course of a weekend, become accustomed again to each other's quirks and rhythms, settling into the yin and yang of their relationship. The reunion brings back a flood of memories for both, and in the course of their travels together, they stumble upon old friends and enemies from their college days, most notably Ricky (Mark Benton), who is more painfully screwed up and unstable than Hannah and Annie put together.
The title *Career Girls* is a doubly ironic reference to unfulfilled hopes and gradual maturation. Neither Hannah, a college Engligh major, nor Annie, a psychology major, have careers. Neither are they still girls, having grown up as they grew apart, in mutually surprising transformations. Hannah and Annie have settled, without satisfaction, into office jobs, but both have a desire to move on to better, less ordinary lives. Their reunion, however, causes them to move in the past -- and not in order to effect some dramatic character change by film's end. In moving backwards more than forwards, *Career Girls* shows the tortured path by which two friends gradually arrived at who they now are -- as they catch up on six years apart, we catch up on their four years together.
*Career Girls* doesn't have the mawkish weepiness of Leigh's last film, the mother-daughter reuinion tale *Secrets and Lies*, nor does it share the soapish qualities of that film's story. *Career Girls* is simpler, and therefore much sharper in its focus. It is more satisfying as well, even though nothing dramatic happens, nothing in particular is resolved by film's end. *Career Girls* is an acute, brilliantly acted slice of life, rich and insightful, bright and witty, as it follows two remarkably unremarkable women through years of ordinary misery. A quietly moving film about the small victories and setbacks that serve as signposts on a journey without end, *Career Girls* leaves a lingering sense of emptiness when it's over. It is precisely the same feeling that accompanies saying goodbye to friends.