Though burdened with a truly regrettable title, Hateship Loveship is the little indie drama that proves Kristen Wiig isn't just a hilarious comedienne and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter; she's also a damn fine actress.
Inspired by the Alice Munro short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," Hateship Loveship stars Wiig as an introverted caregiver named Johanna, who has recently moved with a fractured family. She's been hired to watch over willful teen Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives with her stern grandfather (Nick Nolte) because the girl's father Ken (Guy Pearce) is a screw-up on just about every level. He's a broke junkie with a criminal past. Nonetheless, Johanna is enchanted by him, even though he barely notices her.
Johanna's crush doesn't escape the notice of Sabitha and her mean-girl bestie, Edith (Sami Gayle). For their own amusement, the pair begins a faux flirtation by masquerading as Ken through emails. The attention she believes she's getting from this man means so much to Johanna that she risks all she has to take a chance on him, only to discover it was all a cruel prank. But rather than run away embarrassed, Johanna digs into her decision, which makes for delicate and poignant drama.
This may sound like I've given away most of the plot, but really Hateship Loveship hits its stride at this point, morphing into a rare tale of self-discovery and love that is not drenched in sentiment or blinded by idealism. Johanna's attachment to this man may have been forged on lies, but she feels connected to him nonetheless. She won't leave. And her love for him impacts all of those in this deeply dysfunctional clan.
Wiig is an absolute revelation in this role. In the hands of a lesser actress, Johanna would be a grating sad sack or a vapid mouse of a woman. But Wiig offers a performance that is both fragile and vibrant, beautifully portraying Johanna's transformation from wallflower to risk taker.
Bolstering her fantastic and tender turn here is a supporting cast that adds texture and depth to the film's darker corners. A shabby Pearce deftly establishes Ken's loser status, but he brings in just enough charm that we can understand Johanna's initial attraction to him. Steinfeld and Gayle make perfectly believable frenemies, and later the former has a heartbreaking moment of her own. Lastly, Nolte's gruffness plays well into this grandfather who aches because of the disintegration of his family, but can't see how to stop it.
Director Liza Johnson brought together a terrific ensemble, and guides them through an unadorned but powerful drama. That's not to say Hateship Love ship is without style. In its early scenes, Johnson paints Johanna's world in the pale hues like watercolors. But as Johanna grows confident and embraces bolder colors, the film's design follows suit. Likewise, the cinematography, which features a lot of handheld shots, reflects Johanna's stumbling path through self-discovery. Ultimately, Johnson has created something really special here. Hateship Love ship is a perfect encapsulation of its meek heroine's narrative. Told with a warm and hopeful tone, it is a rich and rewarding love story that deserves to be noticed.