Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lonely Help: "Hateship Loveship" a modestly dramatic vehicle for Wiig



Hateship Loveship (2014)
101 min., rated R.

Small and scaled back, "Hateship Loveship" is a film of modesty and genuine feeling, as written by Mark Poirier (2008's "Smart People") and finely directed by Liza Johnson with an observant, very low-key style. The story could have easily condescended and judged all of its characters, but as told with Johnson's humane approach, we grow to understand each of them. Based on the 2001 short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" by Alice Munro, the film (with an abbreviated title) is a more dramatic vehicle for Kristen Wiig after "Bridesmaids" and "Friends with Kids" to showcase its star as the full package. It's not only deserving of her talents and more successful than her last, 2013's disappointingly flat "Girl Most Likely," where she overcame mediocre material, but a sensitive and moving delayed-coming-of-age story about the longing to be loved and losing sight of one's own happiness to take care of others.

In the central role, Wiig plays a mousy, selfless caregiver named Johanna Parry who cares for an elderly lady. Once the woman passes away, she grants her wishes, putting the deceased in her favorite blue dress, and then reports her death. Johanna is then onto her next job in Iowa—maintaining the lives of Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha  (Hailee Steinfeld), who's been a challenge to raise since she lost her mother in a speedboat accident. After briefly meeting Sabitha's father, Ken (Guy Pearce), an addict trying to move on with his life and renovate a motel by a Chicago freeway, she receives a letter from him thanking her for watching after his daughter. She writes him a card, but Sabitha's best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), offers to mail it without doing so and decides to email Johanna back, pretending to be Ken as part of a cruel prank. As their online conversation grows more open and intimate, Johanna is oblivious of the charade and takes a chance with plans to move to Chicago and be with Ken.

Johanna isn't a complete drip without flaws, as she puts everyone else before herself but is deserving of long-overdue happiness that doesn't involve a scrub brush and a flowered apron. We don't learn a great deal about Johanna, but we do know that she's been caring for others for too long. Being frumped up as a laconic old maid would seem to be an uncomfortable fit for Wiig, but it's a comparatively reserved and beautiful change of pace for her. Rather than going the route of a circumspect comedian, the actress is a chameleon, proving to be more than capable of pathos with her turn being full of subtlety and aching sadness. A moment in which Johanna practices making out with a bathroom mirror could have been played squarely for quirky, deadpan laughs or come off as pathetic, but it's endearing as it is heartbreaking. Wiig carries the film, but she's not alone, either. Guy Pearce finds a goodness and certain charm in no-account lost soul Ken without excusing his faults, as he initially takes advantage of Johanna. Hailee Steinfeld is a natural in conveying teenage rebellion without turning Sabitha into a brat you want to throttle. Nick Nolte brings more to the table than his same-old gruffness as Mr. McCauley, and Sami Gayle is both fetching and spiteful as Sabitha's insecure friend Edith. Even the smallest of parts are delicately handled and generously performed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Ken's junkie girlfriend Chloe, and Christine Lahti, as friendly bank teller Eileen, who both make the most of their time without seeming thankless. 


As the story tries to resolve everything, "Hateship Loveship" ends up moving past its perfect end point and finishing a bit too conventionally. Up until then, the film is gentle, yet never too much to a fault, and emotionally involving. Instead of the film painting Johanna as a submissive spinster, Ken as an addict who has no hope of recovering, and Sabitha who will keep acting out, they are all humanized beyond types so we can actually hope the best for them. There will be naysayers who won't buy into Wiig putting on a long face, but it's refreshing to see what else she can do outside of her comedic skills. Even better, she pulls it off with understated grace and soul.

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