Opens Fri., May 2 at SIFF Film Center. Rated R. 104 minutes.
A drab soul named Johanna Parry has just become convinced that, at long last, someone in the world loves her. The someone lives elsewhere, so physical affection will have to wait, but Johanna has been waiting too long already. So she stares at the bathroom mirror and then forcefully tries out some kissing on her own reflection. With tongue. This action would be normal for a 14-year-old, but for a grown woman it takes on different shades of sad, funny, and mortifying.
The moment might defeat an ordinary actress, but Kristen Wiig is not ordinary. And she really goes for it. Her performance in Hateship Loveship doesn’t aim for comedy in the manner of Bridesmaids or her SNL sketches, but it is similarly uncompromising. The film, adapted from an Alice Munro short story, requires a delicate balance between a certain kind of realism and stylization. Wiig seems to understand this, but director Liza Johnson misses the fable-like qualities of the situation and opts for a naturalistic style, which means the characters come off as less than credible. As in a fable, the story depends on a fateful exchange of letters and a misunderstanding. Johanna is the housekeeper for a man (Nick Nolte) who has recently gotten custody of his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit). He can’t stand his son-in-law Ken (Guy Pearce, in his grunge mode), whose drunk driving caused the death of Sabitha’s mother. Happily, Ken lives in Chicago, a safe distance away.
We need not narrate more of the plot, except to say it’s a story about people believing what they want to believe—which could describe so many stories. If the film is a mixed bag, it’s an interesting choice for Wiig, who goes the minimalist route and creates some genuinely insightful moments amid the generally overstated character studies on display. This is no small achievement, given that Johanna tends to slide toward the edges of the frame, as though doing a disappearing act on herself. The movie’s also an interesting choice for Seattle-bred producer Michael Benaroya, whose still-fledgling career has already notched some unusually literate indie properties, including Margin Call, Kill Your Darlings, and upcoming pictures from Werner Herzog and William Shakespeare. If Hateship Loveship comes up short, it’s still a worthy attempt to peer into the American margins.