Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Tough Sell Of The Independent Film: Hateship Loveship Has Good Components For A Cliché Story.

The Good: Kristen Wiig’s performance, Decent direction, Moments of realism
The Bad: Storytelling gaps, Oppressive mood, Unremarkable and uninteresting characters
The Basics: Despite a strong last third, Hateship Loveship remains a difficult-to-watch, awkward film with pretty stellar performances and direction.

As the weekends devolve into blockbuster releases that generally trade on spectacle over substance, I find myself turning toward independent cinema with the hope of seeing worthwhile movies. To that end, I took in Hateship Loveship this afternoon. Hateship Loveship is the latest Kristen Wiig vehicle and the indie film follows Wiig’s post-Saturday Night Live career. Wiig seems to alternate between taking reliable blockbuster projects and independent films (like Girl Most Likely). Wiig seems to be determined to get taken seriously as an actress and in Hateship Loveship there is no hint of any of her goofy comedic characters that made her so successful as a sketch comedy performer. Come to think of it, even in Bridesmaids (reviewed here!), Wiig presented a more serious character; the zaniness occurred around her serious character.

Hateship Loveship is a straightforward drama and Wiig is wonderful in the movie, even if the film is not a spectacular story. In fact, were it not for the quality of the performances, the moody movie would probably have been relegated to the deepest reaches of Indie Cinema Hell and never even released on DVD. As it is, between Liza Johnson’s direction and Wiig and Guy Pearce’s performances, Hateship Loveship is compelling to watch, though the story’s stark realism is often difficult. The film is based upon a short story and it is worth noting that I have never read that short story, so this is a very pure review of the film Hateship Loveship, unencumbered by any comparisons or preconceptions of what the movie was “supposed” to be.

Opening with Johanna Parry attending to the last moments of an elderly lady and then dealing with the hospice of the body after her death, Parry is set-up with another family for her next job. Johanna moves in with the elderly Bill McCauley, who has a complicated relationship with his widower son-in-law, Ken (who is about Johanna’s age and has a daughter, Sabitha). Sabitha and her friend, Edith, are virtually inseparable and when Edith refuses to let Ken drive her home one night, Johanna peeks in on a conversation between Ken and his father-in-law to learn some of the complexities of their relationship. Parry feels very separated and detached from the family in which she is now working (and living); she has a more natural dialogue with McCauley than she does with Sabitha (whom she is supposed to look after).

When Ken includes a brief note to Johanna in with one of Sabitha’s letters, Parry leaps upon the communication with an eagerness that she does not have for anything else. She immediately writes Ken back, but hands Edith the letter to mail. Edith and Sabitha read the letter and begin corresponding with Johanna as Ken . . . After a fallout between Edith and Sabitha, Edith continues to impersonate Ken via e-mail, with Johanna getting increasingly invested in the online relationship. That leads Parry to Chicago to try to find Ken. There, she finds Ken strung out on coke, living in the run-down motel he bought and promised to fix up using McCauley’s money. Learning that Ken does not even have a computer, Johanna is shocked, but she stays with Ken and begins fixing up the motel so he has the chance to turn his life around.

One of the striking aspects of Hateship Loveship is how long it takes to establish the characters (if not the mood). Eighteen minutes into Hateship Loveship, Johanna and Sabitha have not really had any scenes together to make one believe they have been interacting. So, the idea that Parry is Sabitha’s nanny pretty nebulous and underdeveloped until the plot contrivance from Sabitha and Edith comes into play. When Sabitha and Edith begin writing to Parry as if they were Ken, there is no apparent motivation and the act seems instantly cruel (especially for teenagers who are old enough to know better). It calls into question just what type of movie Hateship Loveship will be. Fortunately, the plot contrivance of the teenagers impersonating Ken is pretty much over by the midpoint of the movie and the mood piece continues as a stark and off-putting character piece.

Johanna Parry is competent and caring, but immediately sheltered and socially-awkward. Guy Pearce’s Ken is charismatic and smart enough to be believable (he figures out almost instantly that the girls were likely responsible for the e-mails Johanna received). The characters in Hateship Loveship are anything but moral absolutes. Johanna, despite seeming entirely sheltered and somewhat naïve (especially about Ken’s drug use and romantic relationships), appears to think nothing of stealing the furniture that belonged to Bill’s daughter (which McCauley covets and keeps in the garage) and paying to have it shipped out to Ken’s motel. Parry is educated; she seems to be a competent home healthcare worker, but even there her character is inconsistently defined. Parry cares for Mrs. Willets from age fifteen until the old lady’s death, so how and why she makes a transition into working with a young person is an abrupt transition for the audience to make. Ken has all of the erratic qualities of an addict and the viewer watches as he flounders around trying for redemption as he turns toward Johanna and away from his druggie girlfriend, Chloe. To the credit of Guy Pearce, while the viewer might be ambivalent as to what they want to see from Johanna, Pearce makes the audience root for Ken to succeed and turn his life around.

Director Liza Johnson does very well with the fractured script she is given. Hateship Loveship would be a dud – it starts off with so many characters and threads, like the relationship between Sabitha and Edith that has so much potential before it falls out of the film completely for the middle third of the movie – were it not for the caliber of the acting and Johnson’s direction. Johnson not only gets a serious performance out of Kristen Wiig that is spectacular (the scene where Johanna practices kissing herself on the mirror could easily have turned into a comedic moment of utter farce, but Johnson keeps it tight and Wiig lands the moment dramatically), but she holds on the characters and their emotional expressions for enough time to truly flesh out the realism of their emotions. When Parry learns that Ken does not have e-mail, Johnson captures the shock and realization on Wiig’s face without her saying a word.

Hateship Loveship is a good example of how the production end of a movie matters less if one does not start with a strong script. Wiig, Pearce, Nick Nolte (McCauley) and Hailee Steinfeld (Sabitha) might all do wonderfully with the characters they are given and Liza Johnson captures their performances well, but the story is not a particularly compelling or original one and it contains significant gaps. The story leaps almost immediately from Parry moving in with McCauley to weeks later (with no scenes that have interactions between Johanna and Sabitha) and has an abrupt fallout between Edith and Sabitha and a plotline with Bill and the bank teller, Eileen, that seems thrown in just to justify the expense and presence of Nolte and Christine Lahti in the film. Hateship Loveship has a number of trademark indie film moments: Ken tries to turn his life around by throwing away his drugs, but ends up doing some of the coke off the toilet seat in one of the film’s most telegraphed moments.

Despite the oppressive mood throughout, Hateship Loveship recovers much of its watchability in the film’s last third. As Johanna and Ken begin to forge a real relationship, Hateship Loveship becomes watchable, even if it is never really enjoyable. But that, too, is the hallmark of many independent films; Hateship Loveship captures that stark realism of people struggling to survive and relate. Despite the initial, sometimes problematic or cliché, conceits, Hateship Loveship recovers well and is worth watching once for all it gets right.

For other works with Nick Nolte, please check out my reviews of:
Hotel Rwanda
U Turn


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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