It’s always interesting to watch actors or actresses who make their living in comedy tackle dramatic material. Many comedians have a natural impulse to draw attention to themselves. It’s the nature of their humor. That’s why certain dramatic roles are so difficult for them. I think that’s what makes Kristen Wiig’s performance in “Hateship, Loveship” so compelling. There’s nothing showy or attention-grabbing about it, and for a comedian that could be hard hurdle to clear.
I’ve always found Wiig to be funny, but here she has to dial it back and put away any hint of flash or swagger. She plays the quiet and withdrawn Johanna Parry. As the film opens we see her as the caretaker for an elderly woman. It’s something she has done since she was 15 years old. At first glance Johanna’s clothes give the illusion that we are watching a period piece. At one point in the film she is called “Little House on the Prairie”. But actually her world has revolved around her caretaking and she’s has had practically no social life whatsoever.
The elderly lady dies which frees Johanna in a variety of ways. She immediately lands a job in small town Iowa as a housekeeper for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Sabitha lives with her grandfather because her mom was killed in a car wreck and her dad Ken (Guy Pearce) is an unreliable come-and-go father with a drug problem. A resentful Sabitha and her best friend Edith (Sami Gayle) play a cruel joke on Johanna making her think that Ken is attracted to her through a series of fraudulent emails. This causes Johanna to make some spontaneous but earnest decisions which shifts the movie into an entirely new direction.
Many of the movie’s later plot turns may seem a bit implausible but writer Mark Poirier wisely keeps his focus on the characters and director Liza Johnson allows them the room to breathe and grow. This is important because “Hateship, Loveship” is all about relationships – fractured relationships, rekindled relationships, potential relationships. There is no magic formula to what makes this a good movie. It’s simply a collaboration between filmmakers and performers who know how to tell a smart and focused story.
The cast sparkles and everyone is given some level of character complexity. As mentioned, Wiig is fantastic. Her dowdy, naive, and socially awkward Johanna is the emotional centerpiece. It’s a beautifully reserved performance and it takes some time to truly appreciate what she’s doing. The always reliable Pearce has no problem revealing the multiple sides of Ken. In one scene you feel sympathy for him. The next scene he does something utterly shameless. And I do love Steinfeld. She’s a great young actress with a long career ahead of her. Veteran actor Nolte is absolutely perfect and Gayle is shockingly vile. And then there is the small but lovely performance from Christine Lahti.
“Hateship, Loveship” is a modest but compelling character study – a film that is most interested in people and the relationships they share both good and bad. There are a couple of twists that you just have to go along with, but I had no problem doing it. That’s because I cared about these characters. They aren’t paper-thin caricatures or boring, lifeless clichés. Johnson’s direction and Poirier’s script doesn’t allow them to be and because of that “Hateship, Loveship” is a pleasure to watch.