MIKE LEIGH'S RUMPLED and melancholy "Career Girls," about two former college roommates reuniting for a weekend, cuts through the artificial flavorings of this summer's movies like the very best bittersweet chocolate. It's more a morsel than a meal, not as substantial and cathartic as last year's Oscar-nominated "Secrets and Lies," but anything at all by Leigh reminds us that movies can be about what it means to be alive in this world, right now, surrounded by real people -- not just offer fantasy thrill rides through celebrityland.
Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman) haven't seen each other in the six years since graduation, and the hesitant, jerky rhythm of their reunion suggests how seldom, still, either woman tries to get close to anyone. "You're so mature," Annie marvels, taking in Hannah's elegant, cream-color clothes and microwave-graced apartment with its sunny yellow walls. "It looks like piss," Hannah quips about the color, and they slide into the grooves of their peculiar friendship: Annie's the sweet but perilously sensitive one, while Hannah shoulders her way through life with caustic, self-deprecating humor, her cynicism worn proudly on her sleeve.
To show just how much both women have changed, Leigh uses flashbacks, for the first time in his career. The flashback is a basic cinematic device, but it feels strangely mechanical, even invasive, here. The thrilling thing about Leigh's films has always been the meatiness of the performances, the way each actor carries her character's whole lifetime of hurts, misadventures, dreams, grudges, plans, disappointments and hunger right there in her face and voice. He's never much needed flashbacks or explanations because the way he prepares his performers -- with weeks of careful character building and improvisation, winnowed down to the final script -- fills them up with the imaginary experiences of the characters and then makes them transparent. In "Secrets and Lies," Marianne Jean-Baptiste's character's happy childhood showed in the lovely, generous serenity with which she greeted the world, while Brenda Blethyn's panicky, grating endearments betrayed years of emotional deprivation.
"Career Girls" wants to show us how Hannah and Annie's poised adulthood rests uneasily over a wobbly teenage past. The flashbacks have a raw, exaggerated quality: Annie hiding the nervous dermatitis on her face behind a curtain of hennaed hair, Hannah stabbing at everyone with her blunt, aggressive jokes. "You do look like you've done a tango with a cheese grater" she tells Annie the day she moves in, triggering a teary dash for the bathroom. No one can accuse Leigh of sentimentality -- he depicts late adolescence as a swamp of self-consciousness and insecurity that the girls seem possibly incapable of surviving. Hannah's leather jacket and pathetic hipster haircut alone are enough to break your heart, so utterly do they fail to achieve the cheeky, defiant effect she seeks.
It's Leigh's MO to introduce us to people whose company we're not sure we can endure for the next two hours, then craftily win our sympathy. Annie's flinching and twitching and Hannah's hyperactive patter almost scuttle that plan -- they feel more like caricatures than anyone in a Mike Leigh movie has for years. In that, "Career Girls" harks back to the savage comedy of Leigh's early TV films for the BBC, ruthless little set pieces like "Nuts in May" and "Abigail's Party." Back then, he could grind our noses into human vanity and hopelessness with a ferocity that even Samuel Beckett would envy. In "Career Girls," wallflower Annie leads on a classmate who's even more a misfit than herself, then backs off once she's gratified her craving for romantic attention. Misery, this tells us, breeds cruelty as often as kindness.
But Annie and Hannah do survive and evolve, and in the contemporary scenes in "Career Girls" they've gained the strength to revel in the sort of girlish larks they missed during their surly adolescence. In the movie's funniest scene, they do a little speculative house hunting for Hannah and find themselves getting the grand tour of a high-rise condo from a lecherous young yuppie. (Scenes of people showing off their houses seem to be as essential to Mike Leigh films as car chases are to action movies.) "On a clear day, I bet you can see the class struggle from here," says Hannah, peering out the window. "What's your name, luv?" asks their oily host, and she promptly replies "Rumpelstiltskin."
Cartlidge's Hannah, who owes the softening of her once-prickly exterior to the tenderness she eventually learned to feel for fragile Annie, has grown up to be an irresistibly sardonic commentator on the absurdities of modern life. With her crooked teeth and lantern jaw, Cartlidge may not be technically beautiful, but her fiery intelligence gives her the magnetism of a bruised Judy Davis. Steadman has a harder job of it -- Annie's plaintive, high-pitched voice (she's the kind of woman who has multiple, shifting food allergies) really sets the teeth on edge. But she does grow, losing her rash, mustering a small store of courage to face a callous ex-boyfriend and, when the women run into the man she once rejected -- now a half-mad derelict -- finally able to see the truth in his accusation: "You don't think about anyone but yourself."
That meeting, like the big confessional denouement of "Secrets and Lies," tends to underscore Leigh's message a bit more emphatically than seems entirely necessary, but it still works. Not every misfit makes it through the trials of youth in one piece, and even Annie and Hannah carry scars they can't, and shouldn't, forget.