Based on a 50-page short story by Alice Munro (“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”), Liza Johnson’s Hateship Loveship is a remarkably delicate portrait of a shy, recessive but ultimately unsinkable woman entirely free of self-pity that confirms the remarkable watchability of Kristen Wiig.
Here Wiig - in her first dramatic role - plays Johanna Parry, a quietly competent caretaker who seems to lack any semblance of social skills and might even be “on the spectrum” of autistic behavior. Johanna seems kind enough, though perhaps that’s just a mechanism for dealing with difficult elderly clients.Anyway, we meet her beside the deathbed of one where she does the necessary things; then she’s on to a new assignment. She’s been engaged to work for an old lawyer, Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), specifically to help with his teenage granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld).
Sabitha has been living with her grandfather since an accident killed her mother and sent her reprobate father Ken (Guy Pearce) to prison. Ken’s out now, but McCauley only tolerates his presence because of Sabitha. Ken is bad with money, a petty thief who is suffused with a palpable sense of self-loathing. He retains a glimmer of the charm he must have had before the accident, but he’s a ruin of a man, an object of pity even to his daughter. (The few of us who managed to see 1999’s A Slipping-Down Life have seen Pearce play this sort of character before.)
Johanna catches him stealing McCauley’s pills, but she doesn’t rat him out because he was kind to her. Sabitha’s “wild” friend Edith (exuberant and winning Sami Gayle) notices something pass between the adults and suborns Sabitha to help her play a cruel joke. They engineer an epistolary romance between Johanna and Ken, setting up a fake email account (Ken doesn’t have a computer) through which they can toy with the housekeeper’s emotions. We watch alien feelings register on Johanna’s face and we understand that this is a woman who has lived her life in cardigans and aprons, among the remote and the dying, who never dreamed that she might be someone’s object of desire. In one beautiful and terrifying scene, she presses her face to the bathroom mirror in emulation of something she might have seen in a movie. She kisses her reflection, but it doesn’t kiss her back.
Then the worst happens. Johanna convinces herself that Ken needs her, so she packs up her bag and heads off to Chicago, where he’s halfheartedly trying to get a fleabag hotel up and running. Mostly he lounges around with his on-again, off-again girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose appetite for booze and drugs is simpatico with his.
While the Hollywood convention would be to play Johanna’s surprise arrival as a moment of comic mortification (quickly followed by a sentimental dousing), Ken reacts with plausible compassion and understanding (“Those girls can be really mean,” he tells her) while Johanna, as usual, just gets on with things. She starts to clean - to make the best of it.
You might guess what comes next, and you might be right, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything predictable about this gentle and affirming movie. About the only nits to be picked are an undeveloped subplot featuring Christine Lahti (we could always use more Christine Lahti), that unfortunate, awkward title and the obvious problem the audience will have believing that Wiig could ever be considered unlovely and drab.
She’s hardly that, though her remarkably controlled performance (unlike some comedians who tend to mug and sputter, she underplays her character’s fragility) allows us to believe in this vision of Johanna.
Hateship Loveship 89
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte, Christine Lahti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hailee Steinfeld, Sami Gayle Director: Liza Johnson Rating: R, for drug use, some sexuality and language Running time: 104 minutes