The Next 20

The Vagina Music of Walking and Talking

Twenty years ago, Nicole Holofcener’s debut flopped. Now, it feels like a prophecy about the women who rule pop culture.

Top: Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in Walking and Talking. Bottom: Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in Broad City.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Miramax and Comedy Central.

When Nicole Holofcener’s first film, Walking and Talking, was released in mid-July 1996, the publication you’re reading was less than a month old. 1996 was in many ways a year after which our relationship to the technologies of the dawning 21st century would no longer be the same. It was the year many ordinary, non-tech-savvy young adults—myself among them—first acquired and began to regularly use a personal email account, as opposed to ones connected to schools or jobs. (America Online, one of the first companies to provide at-home dial-up access, still charged by the hour—a billing practice that would change by the end of 1996 as demand increased.) In February a computer nicknamed Deep Blue finally outsmarted world chess champion Garry Kasparov. In December, Steve Jobs’ unsuccessful solo venture, NeXT, was bought by Apple, leading to Jobs’ second reign as personal-computing visionary and to the development of the various handheld doodads that now accompany, document, and interrupt every moment of our everyday lives. And Slate launched, accompanied by a press release from Microsoft, the magazine’s first parent company, announcing its mission “to bring thought-provoking, high-caliber journalism to the Internet’s World Wide Web.” What now strikes us as comically redundant phrasing demonstrates the uncertainty even of those at the forefront of new media about the exact nature of this publishing entity they were creating.

Walking and Talking, a comedy about female friendship starring then-unknowns Catherine Keener and Anne Heche, opened to near-universal positive reviews—and even nearer-to-universal indifference from the marketing and publicity arms of Miramax, the distributor that released this microbudget Sundance discovery. (Walking and Talking’s production budget was $1 million, at a time when the average Hollywood film cost around 50 times that.) As Holofcener recalls in a charming first-person account of the film’s complicated production history, Miramax had just realized it had a moneymaker and Oscar contender with the Gwyneth Paltrow–starring Emma, a June release. In a market even less receptive to female-driven movies than today’s—a lot less, as I can personally attest from a young adulthood watching female characters built of the flimsiest cardboard—there was no way the Weinstein brothers were going to throw resources behind another “woman’s film,” especially one with a storyline as simple as its title: Two lifelong friends, Amelia (Keener) and Laura (Heche), go through a rough patch after one of them tells the other she’s getting married.

Thanks to cable television—in those pre-Sopranos days, less a producer of original programming than a recycling service for recent theatrical releases—Walking and Talking found its way into my life despite the marketing shutout. Remember how cable channels used to keep a movie in high rotation for a month or more at a time, so that nearly every time you flipped past you could catch it at some point in its running time? Walking and Talking was a film I used to fall pleasurably into each time it crossed my path, always wondering how I could be so spellbound by a movie in which so little happens.

These days, cable TV and the streaming services that are fast replacing it churn out one original series after another about young women to whom little happens, outside the everyday run of small triumphs and humiliations. Many of these shows are created by young women, such as Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and the Broad City masterminds, in whose careers a lot has already happened. Indeed, women telling stories about other women walking and talking—and flirting, and fucking, and fighting—now live at the forefront of comedy.

But in 1996, Walking and Talking’s unapologetically gynocentric story and seemingly offhanded dialogue (in fact, Holofcener had been honing and tightening the script for six years so that each scene filled a specific dramatic function) felt so fresh and different, I was almost embarrassed at how much I loved this little 86-minute movie. I remember not quite daring to recommend it to my then-boyfriend, staunch feminist though he was. Maybe I feared a reaction along the lines of the one Laura’s fiancé (Todd Field) has when he’s forced to listen to Joan Osborne on a road trip. “Do we really have to listen to this vagina music all the way there?” he gripes. “Yes,” respond the love of his life and her best friend in annoyed unison.

Two decades on, Walking and Talking’s vagina music still sounds as good as ever—even if to watch the film now is to be made sharply aware of how much has changed, not just in entertainment trends and gender politics, but in the very texture of daily life. The setting is a slightly down-at-heels Giuliani-era New York City, where a postcollegiate drifter could get by with a job answering phones for the classified-ads section of a newspaper, as Keener’s character, Amelia, does. After Amelia is creeped out by an obscene phone call on a weekend in the country, her ex-boyfriend Andrew (a never-better-or-sexier Liev Schreiber) prankishly suggests, “Let’s star-69 him.” He’s not referring to some out-there sex act, but to the code on push-button phones that found the last caller’s number and rang it back—a joke that will be lost on any viewers younger than the movie’s leads were in ’96.

In addition to being as perfectly acted and as finely crafted as when it came out, Walking and Talking now has the added beauty of seeming like a time capsule from an era we didn’t realize was about to end, when walking and talking and falling in love and breaking up and growing up happened at a different rhythm—a rhythm mediated, as ours is now, by the technology available to us. A major twist involves one character accidentally overhearing a message left on another’s answering machine. And several running gags revolve around Amelia’s neighborhood video store, where a flirtatious clerk (the great Kevin Corrigan, who in a just world would by now be a major movie star) knows her phone number by heart and takes notice of every title she rents. That would include the porno movies (on VHS!) that Amelia sheepishly rents for her eternally broke and horny ex.

The existence of the video store as a social space—of potential romance, but also of awkwardness, embarrassment, and alienation—is another of the elements that, on rewatching, give Walking and Talking that curious time-capsule quality. In 2016, of course, we can go online in the privacy of our broadband-equipped lairs and rent any movie we like. I recommend this one.