In her strikingly humane and thought-provoking debut feature, Return, writer-director Liza Johnson showed the ability to locate illuminating character details in all sorts of quiet moments. With her second film, Hateship Loveship, starring Kristen Wiig, Johnson again proves herself an astute chronicler of human frailty, even if the low-wattage hum of her lightly romantic drama eventually peters out, leaving the hull — more intriguing than emotionally satisfying — of an ensemble character piece.
Adapted by Mark Poirier from a 2001 short story by Alice Munro, the film centers on Johanna Parry (Wiig), an exceedingly mild-mannered live-in caregiver who in the wake of the death of her client, moves to a new town to work as a housekeeper for Bill McCauley (Nick Nolte). Bill’s granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) lives with him, and has ever since his son-in-law, Ken Gaudette (Guy Pearce), went to prison following a tragic accident that claimed the life of Bill’s daughter and Sabitha’s mother.
After Ken pens Johanna a harmless thank-you note and Johanna responds in kind, Sabitha and her friend Edith (Sami Gayle) take advantage of Johanna’s naivete by posing in correspondence as Ken, fostering a pseudo-relationship between the pair. When Johanna makes a bold leap and acts on what she believes to be a signal from Ken, it elicits greater change for everyone involved.
Though there’s plenty of absorption herein, viewer interest in Wiig’s performance is the main selling point, obviously. Like fellow Saturday Night Live mate Will Ferrell before her, Wiig has a bit of a pensive streak that brings an interesting quality to downbeat characters. Johanna, as rendered by Wiig in a fascinating bit of wallflower portraiture, is a woman who’s simply pressed “pause,” developmentally, in her life, and is surprised to learn she’s in possession of her own remote control. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (IFC Films, R, 98 minutes)