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TORONTO — A beautifully restrained performance from a dowdy Kristin Wiig as an Iowa caretaker, who’s tricked into love, is the main attraction of Hateship Loveship, the second feature from director Liza Johnson (Return). The film is also the second Alice Munro short story to be adapted from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, after Sarah Polley’s Away from Her.
This tale, set between the American Heartland and a dingy Chicago motel (though it was shot in Louisiana), offers the Bridesmaids star a chance to show off her dramatic chops only hinted at in last year’s Girl Most Likely. The role’s a tricky one, since the character’s so naive and sincere, but Wiig not only aces it but manages to stand out from a starry cast that also includes Nick Nolte and Guy Pearce, as a stern paterfamilias and his bum of a son-in-law, respectively, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as Pearce’s teenage daughter and, in a throwaway if very amusing cameo, Jennifer Jason Leigh as a coked-up junkie.
With such a name cast, this low-key but emotionally authentic indie should be able to attract some attention, even if the film’s beauty lies in its carefully observed details and the larger story’s got nowhere particularly surprising to go.
Johanna (Wiig) arrives at the Iowa home of the McCauleys to look after the household and the adolescent Sabitha (Steinfeld), who’s been living with her grandfather (Nolte) since her mother died in an accident. Sabitha’s father, Ken (Pearce), lives in the Windy City, where he’s bought a motel that he wants to fix up. He does visit his daughter but would like to be in her life even more, though Mr. McCauley, who blames Ken for the accident that killed Sabitha’s Mom, will have nothing of it.
Though Ken’s been in prison and is a Narcotics Anonymous member, he seems to be a good person at heart, as evidenced not only by Pearce’s unapologetic yet subtle performance, but also by a kind message Ken leaves for Johanna. Her upbringing was so sheltered — her only previous professional experience was looking after an old lady since she was 15 — that she’s quite flustered that anyone would go out of their way to write her a note. Her hand-written reply, however, causes major trouble as Sabitha and her mischievous best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), get hold of it and start an email correspondence with Johanna, pretending to be Ken. Surprisingly, the initially computer-illiterate wallflower blooms as a result of the idea that someone’s interested in her, to the point that one day she packs her bags and knocks on Ken’s door in Chicago.
Screenwriter Mark Poirier and editor Michael Taylor can’t quite handle the split in locations once Johanna arrives at the motel and the film lacks a sense of how the McCauleys feel about or deal with the fact Johanna has suddenly left them. A subplot involving a fight of sorts that Edith and Sabitha get into also appears too much on cue and feels equally undernourished. Generally, however, the film’s dotted with well-observed scenes that deliver character information and nudge the story forward, such as when Johanna eavesdrops on Edith and Sabitha talking about masturbation or she walks into Sabitha and her sort-of boyfriend (Joel K. Burger) kissing in the garage on purpose. Both scenes suggest that the thirthysomething caretaker is emotionally stunted but curious about intimacy — something she’ll discover a whole lot more about in Chicago.
Wiig holds the screen with ease even as a plain non-entity in a household full of fiery characters, with all the shots of her cleaning and scrubbing away — a typical reaction to any kind of unexpected setback — giving Johanna an almost Cinderella-like halo that’s a good indication of where the story’s headed. The gravel-voiced Nolte brings the right kind of gravitas to his handful of scenes and he’s even rewarded with a love interest (Christine Lahti), while Steinfeld and Gayle (Robin Wright’s daughter in The Congress) are pitch-perfect as the complicated adolescent girls.
Production design and camerawork are solid, with cinematographer Kasper Tuxen‘s camera work mostly steady and his occasional close-ups appropriately drawing attention to the performances. Dickon Hinchliffe’s sparse, strings-driven score is pure Americana.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: The Community, Benaroya Pictures, Fork Films
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Nolte, Christine Lahti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sami Gayle
Director: Liza Johnson
Screenwriter: Mark Poirier, screenplay based on the short story by Alice Munro
Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes, Jamin O’Brien, Dylan Sellers
Director of photography: Kasper Tuxen
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Editor: Michael Taylor
Sales: The Weinstein Company
No rating, 102 minutes.
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