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"Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" (2000), An Analysis


Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

A poster.

A poster.

Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her is a romantic drama starring an ensemble cast: Kathy Baker, Camerion Diaz, Calista Flockhart, Glenn Close, and Holly Hunter, who was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in this film.

I've always viewed this film as the white version of For Colored Girls. I think people familiar with film jargon would call it a "Race Lift" film because there are so many similarities between the two films that one could have been a remake of the other.

A lot of "chick flicks" are focused on telling the individual, personal stories of a collection of loosely (or closely) interconnected women. Waiting to Exhale and Steel Magnolias are other similar "chick flicks" that come to mind. And maybe Set It Off, though that's a pretty badass "chick flick" on a whole other level.

Anyway. I found myself watching this film because I noticed it on Prime. I hadn't seen it in years, but now that I'm older (and more world weary) I feel as if I've noticed some things I never did before.

So join me as I analyze each leading character in the film.

Dr. Elaine Keener

Dr. Elaine Keener hastily answers the phone.

Dr. Elaine Keener hastily answers the phone.

Dr. Elaine Keener (Glenn Close) is a desperately lonely woman. She lives alone with her ailing mother, who she must painstakingly care for on her days off. In-between bathing her mother and helping her poo, she runs back and forth to the phone, eagerly snatching it off the wall.

The fact that Dr. Keener even had a house phone actually . . . made me sad. Largely because seeing older technology reminded me that this movie is basically twenty years old, and when it came out . . . I was fourteen and entering high school.

We are living in a time where almost no one has a house phone now. If this movie had taken place today, Dr. Keener would have a smartphone clipped to her pants with a bluetooth earbud in her ear and would have been able to answer the phone hands-free while bathing her mother . . . God, I feel so old.

Christine reads Dr. Keener's cards.

Christine reads Dr. Keener's cards.

When Christine Taylor (Calista Flockhart) comes by to read Dr. Keener's cards, she doesn't really "read" the cards, nor does she call upon spirits or psychic abilities to interpret them. Instead . . . she cold reads Dr. Keener.

The thing I noticed about Dr. Keener's story that I never noticed before is that . . . Glenn Close has really expressive eyes, which is precisely the reason she was chosen for this role. Everything she's thinking and feeling is painfully obvious in her eyes and mannerisms, so it was ridiculously easy for Christine to make a quick buck basically reading what's on Dr. Keener's face.

This is called Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, so everything that Christine deduces from looking at Dr. Keener is supposed to be taken by the audience as true.

Dr. Keener is desperately lonely. Her career has basically kept her from having her own life. She's afraid she won't find love before it's too late, and having to care for her elderly mother -- who is alone and has no one else, no friends, no lover -- is a constant reminder of what her fate could be if that doesn't change.

It's revealed that Dr. Keener is running back and forth to the phone because she's obsessed with a man who she thinks she can turn into a companion, only he doesn't seem to care much about her. Every time she picks up the phone, it's not him but someone else.

Though Christine is something of a sham, she also successfully predicts that Dr. Keener will indeed come into a relationship with a man, just not the man she's currently obsessed with.

At the end of the film, this man turns out to be Walter (Matt Craven), who lights her cigarette for her at a bar.

Rebecca Waynon

Holly Hunter as Rebecca Waynon.

Holly Hunter as Rebecca Waynon.

I never understood Rebecca's story until I came out as a lesbian myself. Now I see this story no other way. Maybe I'm just coloring this with my own perspective but . . .

Rebecca Waynon is gay.

I'm pretty much convinced that's what her entire story is about. She's gay and in severe denial and it's killing her.

I explained on my "Willow was always a lesbian" article about how a lesbian in denial can sleep with men. You don't have to be sexually attracted to someone to sleep with them. You can sleep with someone and be off in your head thinking of someone else, while effectively using this person as a bio s*x toy.

I believe that's what's going on with Rebecca. Much like Dark Alternate Universe Willow, she gets off on having power over men, on being independent and strong and toying with them. She has crafted her entire life around this fantasy where she's the ideal dominate heterosexual woman. The story is actually called Fantasies About Rebecca.

Rebecca is living in a fantasy world where she is straight but in reality, she is gay, gay, gay. And because she can feel no romantic or sexual attraction toward men, she winds up using them as things to continue in her delusions.

Rebecca gets a painful abortion.

Rebecca gets a painful abortion.

Rebecca fools around for years with a married man, and when she gets pregnant, she decides to get an abortion. The scene where she breaks the news to him is . . . painful.

When I was a teenager, I thought Robert (Gregory Hines) was cold and uncaring. But looking at the scene more closely, it's obvious that he wants the baby. There's a moment where he hesitates and just looks at Rebecca sadly. But he knows he can't tell her what to do because that would be wrong because . . . it's her body. He had a chance to avoid the pregnancy by using protection, which he did not. So he gets up, quickly changes the subject, and makes his way to the door.

Rebecca seems to resent the fact that he won't argue about the abortion and instead gives in so readily to her decision. If you watch her expression, it's almost like she's disappointed that he changes the subject. She presses the matter by saying, "You don't want me to have this baby, do you?" And he lies, telling her that he doesn't, before going out the door.

I kind of feel like Rebecca wanted him to be upset. She wanted a reaction out of him and didn't get it. It almost seems like she got pregnant on purpose to test how much Robert cared about her and to further indulge in her fantasy of being a "straight" woman. The way she tells her doctor about carelessly "forgetting" her diaphragm is questionable. But she didn't get the reaction she wanted from Robert, so she aborted the pregnancy.

Rebecca and Walter at a bar.

Rebecca and Walter at a bar.

Later, Rebecca takes home Walter, a man who works under her at the bank she manages. After sleeping with him, she sees him at work the next day. He is happy to see her and seems to genuinely like her, but she coldly rebuffs him.

Again, she is unable to feel anything for him. Maybe she longs to be straight, and knowing that she can't be, she takes out her frustration on Walter by . . . Well, being an asshole to him.

I say that Rebecca is gay because it's directly stated in the story itself. Again, the movie is called Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, and each woman has someone "cold read" her during her story.

There is a homeless woman who functions as Rebecca's "cold reader." She makes a bunch of statements about Rebecca that are supposed to be true because they are things she can tell just by looking at Rebecca.

Rebecca and the homeless woman.

Rebecca and the homeless woman.

The homeless woman accuses Rebecca of sleeping her way into her position as a bank manager, she accuses of Rebecca of enjoying the fact that she has power over the men in her profession, and she accuses Rebecca of being gay.

Rebecca denies all of it, though the audience is supposed to realize that it's actually true. For the homeless woman is the cold reader here and the cold reader never lies.

The homeless woman returns many times to insult Rebecca, but Rebecca isn't offended. If anything, she seems glad. She is living in a fantasy world, where she pretends to be straight and lives a complete lie. The only person who sees her for what she truly is is a homeless woman.

Not only does the homeless woman see the truth but she also pities Rebecca. She caresses her cheek (which Rebecca sadly accepts) and says "I like you, princess, I do" before insulting her some more.

At the end of her arc, Rebecca stumbles outside after getting an abortion and completely breaks down crying in the street. It's because the life she's living is a complete lie, one of loneliness and pain, where she rejects herself on a daily basis and as a result, denies herself happiness. She notices the homeless woman walking on the opposite side of the street and feels even more lonely when the woman ignores her.

Later at the end of the film, Robert comes to her house. He uses his key to open the door but she has the chain across it so he can't enter. He knocks but she stands there ignoring him, perhaps finally tired of lying to herself.


Kathy Baker as Rose.

Kathy Baker as Rose.

Rose (Kathy Baker) writes children's stories and lives alone with her teenage son.

I don't really have much to say about Rose, to be honest. Her story is kind of straightforward: she's single, lonely, and has given up all hope of finding love. As a result, she sort of treats her son like a companion rather than her child and is a little too invasive (smelling his breath? Really?). When her son reveals that he's sexually active, she is forced to reconcile herself to the fact that he is growing up and she will soon be alone.

As the impending doom of loneliness sets in, Rose develops a crush on her new neighbor, Albert (Daniel Woodburn), and longs to make a connection with him. When he catches her peeping in his window at him (....lol), she runs home in a hilarious scene where she is forced to climb through her own window, having locked herself out.

But even after humiliating herself, Rose keeps obsessing over Albert, to the point of walking across the street in the dark to his house. . . . only to have the door shut in her face.

Eventually, Albert realizes Rose is just lonely and harmless. At the end of the film, he teases her by peeping in her window with flowers. She is relieved and they wind up . . .dating, I guess.

Again, this isn't a very involved story and it's very brief compared to the others, so I had no new observations here other than I wish it had been longer and more in-depth.

Christine Taylor

Christine glares at Lily's back.

Christine glares at Lily's back.

After watching this film again for the first time in years, I had a realization about Christine: Christine is no longer in love with her girlfriend, Lily (Valeria Golino), but feels obligated to stay around and care for her. Because apparently, Lily has no one else.

I came to this belated conclusion by closely paying attention to the actresses. Lily is very lovey-dovey. It's clear she's still in love with Christine. But the fact that she has to coax Christine to kiss her and lay beside her and even f*cking talk to her is painful.

Christine does nothing but resist. She has to be begged before she will interact with Lily. She even sleeps in a separate bed from her. She is in hell. She has fallen out of love with this woman but would feel guilty if she abandoned her to die alone, and so she endures the trauma and pain of watching someone she once cared for die of a terminal illness.

Meanwhile, Lily isn't the least bit oblivious. She knows that Christine doesn't love her anymore. There are at least two different scenes where she gazes longingly at Christine from her bed while Christine keeps her distance and purposely ignores her.

There's a moment toward the end of the story where Lily looks up at Christine and speculates about who Christine will date next. She teases Christine about their friend having a crush on her, and it's clear that it pains her to know that she's going die while the woman she loves not only doesn't love her back . . . but will just move on.

Christine and Lily playfully kiss.

Christine and Lily playfully kiss.

There's a flashback scene that shows over and over of Lily back before she lost her hair, playfully kissing Christine. These scenes indicate that Christine misses the away they were and that to her, Lily might as well already be dead, living now only in a memory.

In every story, there's a character who cold reads the main character. But in this story . . . no one cold reads Christine. Instead, the audience is left to cold read the situation by observing the way Christine and Lily look at each other when the other's back is turned. We are supposed to tell by looking at them.

When Lily turns her back, Christine glares resentfully. When Christine turns her back, Lily gazes longingly. We don't even know how long these two have been together, only that one of them became sick and the other felt obligated to stay.

For all we know, this is a relationship that never had a chance to take off because Lily fell ill, leaving Christine deeply resentful of what could have been.

Christine remembers when Lily kissed her.

Christine remembers when Lily kissed her.

There is also the scene toward the end of the story where Lily begs Christine to tell her the story of how they met. Calista Flockhart delivered this scene so well that it breaks my heart to watch it every time.

The first time I saw this film, it was on cable, and this was the first scene I saw. I was a closeted teenage lesbian at the time, so it hooked me. I remember thinking how I would kill to have a connection like that with another woman, even if it meant one of us died in the end.

I still feel that way. It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. That's not some cliche. A life without love is . . . not worth living, in my opinion. Love is a basic need and without it . . .we're just existing.

Christine almost releases her birds. Aren't their wings clipped?

Christine almost releases her birds. Aren't their wings clipped?

At the end of the film, Christine is shown caring for her two canaries. During her arc, she tells Lily a story about two canaries she cared for and how one suddenly died, making it clear that the two canaries she now owns represent (in her mind) her and Lily. Once Lily is gone, the canaries are a constant reminder. She contemplates letting them go and even opens the cage door for a second. But she changes her mind and decides to keep them . . . along with her memories of Lily.

This is again symbolic of the concept that it is better to have loved and lost. Better to keep those memories than to be rid of them.

Carol and Kathy

Carol teaches Walter's daughter to read.

Carol teaches Walter's daughter to read.

Carol (Cameron Diaz), is a witty, charming blind woman who lives with her sister, Kathy (Amy Brenneman), a lonely detective who is actually jealous of her active romantic and social life.

Carol is unaware that her sister is jealous and clings to her as the only person in her life who really loves her. And yet, though she is blind, she can tell just by "looking" at her sister that she is lonely, never goes out, has fun, or gets laid.

She starts dating Walter (the same guy from the other two stories) after being hired by him to teach his blind daughter to read.

Like Carol, being blind doesn't stop Walter's daughter from "cold reading" Carol. She makes a string of painfully correct assumptions about Carol, warning her not to set her heart on Walter and that he will just dump her. Carol already knows this, as Walter passed her in the hall without even saying hello (she knew it was him because she could smell his cologne).

Carol cries after being stood up.

Carol cries after being stood up.

Later, at the end of her arc, she becomes the cold reader for an unknown woman who commits suicide at the beginning of the story and is seen in the background of every story throughout. Kathy is investigating the suicide and can tell just by looking at her that the dead woman was involved with a man.

Carol is sitting on the couch, depressed after being stood up by Walter. After discussing the suicide case with Kathy, she correctly guesses that the woman was lonely after losing her husband and child. She tried to fix things with her husband but it went wrong, and having nothing left to live for, she killed herself. The audience knows this assumption is correct because we have seen the woman in the background of every story, moving through each scene, on her way to suicide.

At the end of her monologue, Carol sadly adds that maybe the woman was just tired of dead ends and disappointment . . . though we know she is really talking about herself. She begins to cry. Realizing there is no reason to be jealous of her sister, Kathy kisses her on the forehead . . . then heads out for a date.

I like this film because of the message of realism (life sucks) mixed in with the message of hope. Every woman in the film is at a different point in her life. Some are leaving loneliness behind while others are still as of yet trapped in it. That is life, full of ups and downs.

All we can do is go with the flo.

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