Walking And Talking Tells The Hardest Truth About Friendship

Photo: Miramax Films/Photofest.
With some films, you expect to walk out devastated. No one sits down to Terms of Endearment thinking they’re in for a romp. You hunker down and subject yourself to having your heart ripped out for 132 minutes, and then you don’t watch that shit again for 10 to 12 years. Other times, you choose something cozy and familiar, a movie that looks like a ladies’-night feature — with, say, Catherine Keener and Anne Heche running around in overalls. Then, 15 minutes in, you find yourself breathing into a paper bag and staring down the chasm of your own mortality.

This is Walking and Talking. And you should watch it!

Twenty years ago this week, Nicole Holofcener’s debut feature hit theaters, staking the filmmaker’s claim to a tough and tender corner of the indie film world. She’s since gone on to tell many more female-centric stories through this lens (along with her tough and tender muse, Keener). Holofcener’s success is unassailable, with films like Lovely & Amazing and Enough Said. Personally, I think Walking and Talking remains the strongest and most acute of her canon to date. But, maybe that’s just because it is the most acute for me, right now.

The film centers on Amelia (Keener) and her lifelong best friend Laura (Heche), both navigating the sharp turning point of their late-20s to early-30s. Their careers are going fine, but not great, their relationships much the same, but everything’s okay because, as always, they have each other and that will never change. Laura has recently moved out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend Frank (Todd Field), but things are still okay. Amelia is maybe a little less okay than Laura, but it’s fine. Then Todd proposes to Laura — and she giddily accepts. Moments later: “Oh my god, how am I going to tell Amelia?”
Photo: Miramax Films/Photofest.
Goooood luck, lady, I thought, sitting alone on my couch. I’d texted a few girlfriends earlier that day, hoping to turn this into an impromptu movie night, but no one was available. All of us, myself included, have reached the stage when “impromptu” doesn’t really work anymore. If you want to watch a movie, it’s best to text about three weeks out with a list of your available dates.

Upon hearing the engagement news, Amelia does what we all do: She gushes her congratulations, offers wholehearted support, and has a little meltdown inside. (That is what we all do, right?) Suddenly, everything in her life has changed, and it just keeps changing. The cat she shared with Laura gets terminal cancer. She gets booted from therapy. Her love life is an ambiguous mess, and her best friend is too busy being engaged to pick up the damn phone.

The only way to save their friendship is to accept that aching distance, trusting they will always be stars in one another’s orbit.

Meanwhile, there’s Laura on the other side of the answering machine, stewing in her own quiet panic. She is evidently the more grown-up of these two friends (and a therapist, no less), and quite certain in her love for her fiancé. Yet, as the post-proposal glow fades, she’s faced with the looming prospect of marriage and all the eternity it implies. Among other things, “to death do us part” suggests that one day you will, you know, die. Does she really want to commit her remaining sexual encounters, dinner parties, and closet space to just this guy? And that’s it? Then death? Faced with these unavoidable facts, Laura herself begins to spiral. Of course, her best friend is too busy dating randos and filling up her answering machine to realize that Laura, too, needs help.
Photo: Miramax Films/Photofest.
Where once they walked through life side by side, these two women are now hesitantly circling each other. Everything looks the same: They get lunch and go wedding-dress shopping. Laura and Frank go up to Amelia’s family lake house, though she sort of has to drag them. The routines and traditions of the women's friendship remain intact, but where once there was a sacred ease, there is now a growing tension. In fact, it’s not that everything has suddenly changed, but that they can no longer ignore all the changes that have already happened.

That’s what makes this movie — despite all its answering machine-based subplots — so timeless. It says the things we just can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) say to each other: I hate that you are moving on. I even hate that I am moving on. It is an arrow to the heart of every woman who has watched a friend step off their shared path and deeper into her own life. It stings us all with equal measure, because we have each been both that friend who walks away and the one left behind. We will all leave and be left so many times, before death does all of us part. The only true tragedy is that we never seem to leave each other behind simultaneously. Would that make it any easier?

Back on my couch, I looked at all the empty space around me, save for the corner where my cat sat, blinking. (“You’d better not get cancer, asshole.”) I thought of my friends, out at networking happy hours, making dinner with their partners, preparing for big meetings the next day, or even watching movies with other friends. I thought of all the ways they’d stretched away from me, and how I’d done the same — not for any lack of love, but for love of other, very important things: relationships, careers, the dreams that keep us up at night, and the risks we take to seize them. Reaching for those things creates an inevitable distance, and the only comfort is knowing that everyone else is doing the same thing, and all of us sometimes wind up alone on the couch on a Tuesday night. I felt at once surrounded by the absence of my friends and their proximity, both just as real and constant. A constellation.

Walking and Talking ends with a reckoning of sorts, because this is a movie, after all. But while the love between these women prevails, it’s not love’s sweetness but its sadness which ultimately brings them back together. Both of them feel lonely and unmoored without the other. And both recognize they have indeed lost each other, in a way, and will never share the same exact closeness they once had. The only way to save their friendship is to accept that aching distance, trusting they will always be stars in one another’s orbit.
Photo: Miramax Films/Photofest.
But, you know what? Sometimes a constellation isn’t enough. As Billy Bragg's music twanged the film to a bittersweet close, I reached for my phone. I sent a text to Jon, one of my closest friends, saying something like: “FYI, I’m re-watching Walking and Talking and this shit is WAY TOO REAL NOW.” He’s the one with whom I spent my 20s watching '90s indie rom-coms, before his path diverted all the way across the country from mine (thanks a lot, dreams). For now, at least, we’re far apart, but it doesn’t always feel so distant. I can still send him a cross-country, out-of-the-blue text about a 20-year-old movie, and know that in minutes he will write back:

“OMG, I KNOW.”

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