A wild teenage girl orchestrates a romance between her nanny and her father, who is a recovering addict.
Kristen Wiig is more synonymous with comedy than anything else. Just look at her track record: “Saturday Night Live”, “Bridesmaids”, “Paul” and “MacGruber”. Granted, she has made some serious fare along the way but for me, “Hateship Loveship” is her breakout movie. It shows what many people have known for some time now, that Ms. Wiig has a terrific performance inside of her, just waiting to come out. And thanks to director Liza Johnson, she gives one of the most wonderful and yet one of the most sincere and uncontrived performances I’ve seen in some time.
The movie begins with Johanna (Kristen Wiig), a caregiver to an elderly lady who has just died. An old friend of Johanna’s has set up her next job in which she will be looking after a teen, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) when she comes home from school in the afternoons while her grandfather Bill (Nick Nolte) works. When she gets to the house, Sabitha’s father Ken (Guy Pearce) is there and after she settles into her room, Ken takes Sabitha and her friend Edith and Johanna to a local burger joint for the evening. Afterwards, Ken heads back to Chicago and the girls head home. A few days later, Sabitha gives Johanna a note from Ken in which he states that he enjoyed meeting her and thanks her for looking after his daughter.
Johanna immediately writes a note back and while getting ready to leave for the post office, Edith says that she’ll be passing by there and will mail it for her. The next day when Sabitha gets to school, Edith shows her the letter and they both open it up to read it. They decide it would be fun if they responded as Ken, to see what happens. Naturally, Johanna, who is very unsophisticated and has not had much experience in the world, is elated and writes back. This goes on for a while until she overhears Bill talking with Ken one night. Apparently, Ken has bought a run-down motel and has plans to try and open it up but needs some cash.
With over $20,000 put away in savings, she decides to leave the house and because, at least in her eyes, they want to be together, she heads out to Chicago to be with him. Naturally, when she gets there, he is surprised to see her and she is embarrassed but she stays around and starts helping him clean the place up. Ken is a recovering drug-addict and has a sometime girlfriend in Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who drops by when she wants to party. With Johanna around though, Ken begins to clean his act up and eventually dumps Chloe because of the bad influence she has on him. Gradually, Ken and Johanna begin to fall for each other in one of the most unassuming love stories I have ever seen.
The movie is very unconventional and the love story is very unorthodox, not typically the way two people fall in love. When Johanna starts receiving the letters from ‘Ken’, we see her explode with illumination and because she is so gentle and wide-eyed, we feel genuine happiness for her. But then we remember that these letters are not coming from Ken, but from the minds of Sabitha and Edith and at that point, we feel genuine disdain for them, for hurting someone so caring and compassionate. But sometimes, irony can be so ironic. Because of these letters, she makes her way to Chicago where he lives so they can be together in his run-down motel but although they are both initially awkward and uncomfortable around each other, realizing that his letters were in fact, not his, they both warm up to each other.
We find out that Ken was responsible for his wife’s death in a boating accident as he was high on drugs at the time and drunk too. He lives with the guilt everyday and uses alcohol and drugs to drown out the pain. His stepfather, Bill, still blames him for what happened and things between his daughter and him are strained so the fact that Johanna knows all of this, as well as his drug and alcohol problem and still wants to be with him, opens his eyes to the fact that she genuinely cares about him, no matter what his circumstance. He ascertains how to reciprocate, learning how to do it from her as they move forward with their lives. Sabitha ends up coming to the motel for the summer and she and Johanna bond and she becomes closer with her father, now that he has given up the drinking and drugs.
The film doesn’t show everyone living happily ever after but it does show that people in extreme hardship, whether it be emotional, physical or both, can find the ability to forgive and to also fall in love, even when everything around them seems to be going downhill. The film takes a seemingly normal family and begins to peel away the layers until we see a family in desperate need of one another, each of them seemingly incapable of taking the first step. When Johanna enters the picture, her simple presence begins to change the family’s dynamic, all of them unaware of this progressive transformation, Johanna included. When it does finally happen, it’s so inconspicuous that even they don’t realize that their fractured lives are slowly beginning to heal again. The performances are first-class and Ms. Wiig has never been better. I look forward to her next dramatic role with great enthusiasm.
In select theaters now and available on VOD