HATESHIP LOVESHIP Review

Last summer I watched a film already forgotten by most called Girl Most Likely in which Kristen Wiig essentially portrayed the same person she did in 2011's Bridesmaids. One hates to keep bringing up old news and as much as I and surely many others appreciate Wiig not easily folding and returning to do a Bridesmaids sequel for little more than financial reasons I'd at least hoped she might take another shot at a big studio flick that let her have a good portion of creative control, but since her starring break-out Wiig has done little to further her star in the mainstream save for a few supporting roles and voice work, but mainly she has stuck to the indie/festival circuit scene; a move that can be easily admired, but may force Wiig's leading lady career to run its course quicker than anyone would have anticipated three years ago (and maybe that's not what she wants, fair enough). My point being that even though Wiig could have done as many before her and quickly found her niche through a series of hits and misses she has instead opted for the relatively newer, more credible route of starring in smaller films that not many will see, but for one reason or another will make Wiig feel better about what she is contributing to the arts at the end of the day. And though I may have personally preferred to see Wiig go the big, mainstream route and create a filmography all her own of giant successes and notable titles she has instead amassed a resume of TV show appearances and movies such as Hateship Loveship that show the broad comedian of Saturday Night Live has more to offer than simply being the most ridiculous or outlandish person in the room. In the case of this latest film what we have is a rather droll experience. It is both engaging yet unappealingly odd in the way that we want to become invested in the story because we feel a compassion for Wiig's character, Johanna, but she remains so distant from everyone, never really opening up despite the arc of the narrative focusing on her finding a slight bit of happiness in what feels like an overwhelming world to her fragile self. It is these characteristics that allow Wiig to play a different kind of person than we've seen her as before. There are many things to enjoy, to smile at about the film while also being unusual to the point it seemed I should be cautious about it, keeping my own distance, which ultimately left me feeling somewhere in the middle about the experience as a whole.

Johanna (Kristen Wiig) is off to a new adventure for the first time in a long time.
We first meet Johanna as she looks after a very elderly woman who it seems has been bed-ridden for some time. On this morning in which the film opens we hear the woman tell Johanna she wants to, "wear her blue dress," which Johanna quietly acknowledges and goes to retrieve only to come back and find the woman has passed. Wiig, though it seems she would have become attached to this woman who we assume she has cared for for quite some time shows little to no emotion as she calls for assistance or changes the woman from her nightgown to the requested blue dress. We learn little of her background and we know even less about why she is so timid and reclusive. All we learn from a few quick exchanges of dialogue is that she has already taken another job and promptly leaves what has no doubt been a home to her, filled with memories with no sign of difficulty. When she reaches her new employers house she finds a welcoming yet gruff older man known around town as Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) as well as the girls disheveled father, Ken (Guy Pearce), and Sabitha's friend Edith (Sami Gayle). Sabitha is living with her grandfather after her mother was killed in an accident and her drunken, drug-addicted father is to blame. Johanna is welcomed warmly by Mr. McCauley and even more warmly by an interested Ken, though it remains clear this is nothing more than him casually checking her out as well as sizing her up due to the fact her main role will be to take care of his daughter. Edith notices the looks, the way in which Johanna appreciates Ken's affectionate language, an afterthought to him, and how it puts a foreign smile on her face. Once Ken heads back to Chicago to continue to try and fix-up a run down motel he bought for next to nothing and that his father-in-law won't lend him any money to put on the fast track, Sabitha and Edith begin to concoct a make-believe relationship between Ken and the unsuspecting Johanna. This is more or less to mess with the odd Johanna that neither of them particularly take to, but when this imaginary exchange of emotions becomes all too real and unsuspecting for Johanna she picks up and takes off for Chicago.

While Hateship Loveship is a difficult piece to engage with and therefore an interesting case to approach since one simultaneously becomes intrigued by the thought of that moment when Johanna arrives in Chicago and Ken has no idea about the feelings that have been mounting within her, it more or less at this point becomes a film where once that moment passes with as much anxiety as you could expect from someone like Johanna it becomes what you expected it to be all along. Naturally, Ken has no idea what she is doing there and is surprised to see her come walking through the door, but there is no big discussion, no violent change in character within Johanna, no revenge story to now be told, but instead she feels like a fool, an idiot for ever thinking someone might find something to desire in her. So what does she do? She begins to clean, to help out, to do what Ken would have never had the motivation to do on his own. To spare the remainder of the details on how the film proceeds from this moment and concludes I'll spare you from any further analysis of what the events and how they unfold might mean and how they might come off as rather tranquil, but have a boiling right below the surface sense to them. Instead, what I have come to find with many films and what seems to be taking place with Hateship Loveship as I write about it now is that I feel I'm coming to like it more. The more I think about it and appreciate the way in which it, like its main character, seems so delicately and carefully put together are enough to make you want to investigate further and see what you may have missed the first time around. Just considering the slight bits of foreshadowing or the appreciation for the real, full range of strong performances on display here are reason enough to make me wonder why it didn't leave a stronger impression the first time the credits rolled and that have me thinking a second viewing, having warmed up to who these people are rather than being surprised by their restrained personalities, might allow me to better understand the reason the tone is kept so consistently solemn and the outcome, while predictable is perfect the way it is. All of this to say that even if it doesn't hit you right the first time it may be worth giving a second chance because it is the kind of film that creeps up on you, that you don't necessarily embrace in the moment, but contains people you will think about hours later.

Johanna forms a relationship with Ken (Guy Pearce) through interesting circumstances.
The driving force of this reconsideration are the certainly the performances. Not only are we talking about the unexpected, reserved showing from Wiig, but the film boasts an impressive line-up and everyone from Pearce (who is always reliable) to Nolte doing some of his more touching work shows up to work and not just for the thought of being in something that might catch on with critics and audiences. As Ken, Pearce is a mess and his rugged charisma allows for him to play this recovering addict with a level of understanding as to why Johanna might be attracted to him. Sure, you could place it squarely on the fact he shows her more attention than anyone else ever has and therefore triggers something within her, but this passes once she realizes the whole pen pal routine was a scam and she has nowhere else to go but confront the person Ken actually is and either choose to stay or leave. Her compassion and instinct to take care of people lead her to the decision that ultimately feels right for Johanna, but it would have been just as easy for the screenwriters to blame it on Johanna's apprehensive tendencies and let her go out into the world and discover herself, for who she really is in a completely different way. Of course, this really wasn't an option as writer Mark Poirier (Smart People) has taken the material from a short story by Alice Munro and turned it into a feature. I haven't read Munro's short story and can venture to say I probably won't, but I don't necessarily have to because along with Wiig, Pearce and Nolte these characters have been brought to life with a sense of vibrancy, especially in the younger cast that includes a consistently impressive Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender's Game) and the wrench thrown into Johanna's world that is Edith as portrayed by relative newcomer Gayle. I've yet to see Gayle in anything else (though she has a credit in Noah as refugee daughter), but she certainly leaves an impression here and one that doesn't short-hand the secondary story of Sabitha and the issues she is struggling with after losing her mom and not being able to count on her father. In all actuality, these two young actresses bring a strong sense of credibility to a plot strand that could have been little more than an afterthought, an archetype present only to set up the crux of the film. And while I imagined Hateship Loveship might have been little more than an afterthought after first watching it, like Johanna to Sabitha or Ken to Johanna, it grows on you.