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Eccentric, but lovely and amazing, women

Sometimes a smart little film just makes the world a wiser place. "Lovely and Amazing," directed by Nicole Holofcener, is clever and observant and just edgy enough to feel like real life.

Ms. Holofcener's story concerns a family of women in which each member is fragile and eccentric, but functional despite her flaws. She sidesteps sentimentality with wit, seeing to it that every character is fully formed and three-dimensional.

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Brenda Blethyn stars as Jane, the mother of two adult daughters, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) and Michelle (Catherine Keener).

Jane has also adopted an 8-year-old African-American girl, Annie (Raven Goodwin). Daughter Michelle, though married and a mother herself, is more than a little jealous of the young newcomer. It doesn't help much that her loveless marriage is crumbling around her. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, rarely eats and suffers from chronic insecurity about her body and her talents.

Jane's own self-esteem is so poor that she has liposuction to improve her middle-aged appearance, leaving young Annie to the mercies of Michelle. Complications following the surgery begin to shift family dynamics visibly.

If all this sounds neurotic, well, it is.

At the same time, what is lovely and amazing about these women is that they keep each other in balance. However spiteful Michelle seems, she is capable of acting generously. Like her big sister, Elizabeth looks for reassurance in all the wrong places but is also loving and responsive to love. Though the family's obsession with looks begins to affect even Annie's concept of herself, the child speaks nothing but the truth. And she loves her adopted mother.

Perhaps the film's worst fault is that every male character is shown as a cad. While that device serves to draw the women closer, it's not true of most women's real experiences.

Actually, these women like men – that's why they are so hard on themselves. They desperately want to be found attractive, and the cost is high.

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That is Holofcener's deft indictment – not only of vanity, but of the social values that make women miserable with their physical imperfections and willing to risk their lives to please others and conform to impossible ideals.

Fortunately, we are left with more than social commentary. The cast makes a true ensemble – each woman creating a believable intimacy with the others. These ladies bounce off each other like energetic electrons around a nucleus – and the nucleus is love.

• Rated R; contains harsh language, nudity, and adult situations.