by Hope Madden
Ohio native Liza Johnson continues her impressive evolution as a filmmaker with her latest independent drama, Hateship Loveship. In it, Johnson balances plot threads and character arcs, giving each just the depth necessary to keep the action moving. Her tale itself just can’t quite keep up.
What’s most interesting about the film is that it announces Kristin Wiig as a dramatic performer. She plays Johanna, an observant but almost invisible creature raised on responsibility, hard work and solitude. She’s hired by the McCauleys to keep house and, ostensibly, keep an eye on the teenaged Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). But when Sabitha and her best friend Edith (Sami Gayle – perfectly pitched mean girl) play a cruel prank, things get complicated.
Wiig mostly impresses in her first entirely dramatic role. She carries a lot of screen time and carves out an unusual but believable character. Johanna is a bit of an enigma, but Wiig finds a true center that makes her feel real. It’s a reserved, understated turn, but at times her performance can be blunt when nuance is called for.
Wiig’s blessed and cursed with a talented supporting cast. Blessed in that each actor brings vulnerable authenticity to the role; cursed because her performance feels sometimes less than natural in comparison.
The often underrated Guy Pearce does well with a role that could easily have become clichéd. Because his Ken is so likeable, even when his actions are not, emotions and tensions run uncomfortably high during the film’s most dramatic segments.
Steinfeld, saddled with a smattering of forgettable characters since her standout performance in 2010’s True Grit, finally gets the chance to shine again. She and Gayle articulate the emotional and moral roller coaster that is adolescence without ever feeling trite or predictable.
Nick Nolte also graces the screen as the benevolent curmudgeon, and the film is certainly the better for it.
Mark Poirnier’s screenplay adapts a short from Alice Munro. Their work understands the unpredictable resilience humans sometimes find, and when the focus is on the unraveling of the cruel joke, Johanna’s story is almost unbearably fascinating. But in drawing out the tale to a feature length running time, it begins to feel like a pile up of contrivances.
There’s a lot to like about Hateship Loveship, though, including performances that will help you overlook the flaws.