Hateship Loveship is a strange movie.
Due to its crazy subject matter, it's just a hair away from being a terrible film during its entire running time, yet, thanks to some great performances and solid direction by Liza Johnson, the people behind this one pull off an impressive high-wire act.
In one of her best performances, Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry, a lonely caregiver who winds up working for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), an older gentleman taking care of his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) after her mother has died. Johanna, who has just left a longtime job caring for an elderly woman, becomes the teenage girl's nanny and a housekeeper. She walks into the new household shy, withdrawn and eager to please.
Sabitha doesn't like having her around, so she and a friend (Sami Gayle) tease her in a very peculiar way. They pretend to be Sabitha's addict father, Ken (Guy Pearce), and write love letters to a completely convinced Johanna. In fact, Johanna is so convinced that Ken loves her that she moves into his abandoned hotel without him even knowing.
How this incredibly awkward situation is handled is what makes this a very good, heartwarming movie instead of an ugly, unbearably uncomfortable one. Much credit goes to Johnson and screenwriter Mark Poirier (the Tucson native who also wrote Goats and Smart People) for finding much sweetness in what could've been a very sour affair.
Sure, the film has its share of squirm-inducing moments as Johanna takes the bait and does stuff like practice making out on a mirror. She also happily sends emails to Ken, even though Ken doesn't have a computer. Seeing her building joy, and knowing that she's being taken for a ride, is sometimes painful to watch. There's a point in this movie where the two teenagers are quite unlikable, even despicable.
Even so, when the curtain falls on this one, the overriding vibe is one of sweetness, forgiveness and redemption.
Casting Wiig proves to be a genius move. The comic actress is basically asked to almost never crack a smile in this movie. Her often somber, quiet performance garners a lot of sympathy. The fact that we usually see Wiig going for laughs makes it a little odd to see her doing something this dramatic. That oddness seems to balance out the film's awkwardness, resulting in the whole thing just making sense. I'm not sure there are many actresses who could pull off Johanna the way Wiig does. It's truly beautiful work.
Wiig, who has taken some great risks since leaving Saturday Night Live, is showing that she's willing to take gambles rather than follow the typical post-SNL route. Her upcoming slate (which includes the already acclaimed The Skeleton Twins with fellow SNL alumni Bill Hader) shows that she's far from the ordinary with her choices.
Guy Pearce, who can don an American accent better than any other Aussie actor, gives us an entirely believable mess with Ken. He's guilt ridden, drug addicted and hitting up his former father-in-law for a hotel scheme, and the viewer has every reason to wish the worst for him. Still, Ken loves his daughter, and the sensitive way he deals with the Johanna situation shows he might have a decent core. Pearce brings out the flawed good in Ken, often simply in the way he stares at somebody. He's great in this one.
Steinfeld, who should have at least one Oscar by my count for her work in True Grit, makes you believe in Sabitha, even if she does mess with people's lives. She holds her own with the likes of Wiig, Pearce and the ever-growly Nolte.
Hateship Loveship is a film that doesn't play it safe. It dives right into awkward situations with awkward people and comes up with something that feels good. It's an unexpected, sweetly genuine surprise.