Modestly appointed observational movies about unmoored young adults are commonly tossed in the “mumblecore” grab bag. But that’s too glib a term for “You Hurt My Feelings,” a small-bore work that takes low-budget longing and anxiety to poetic heights. Limited exposure seems likely, but writer-helmer Steve Collins’ triangular romance should find traction among fans of the dramedy-as-haiku.
Collins (“Gretchen”) sets up his audience, in a sense, providing a situation that forces viewers to impose their own interpretation on what’s happening: A distressed Zach Galifianakis lookalike named John (John Merriman) tries to wrangle an infant, a toddler and a dog on a snow-covered backyard somewhere in suburban Connecticut. John is clearly out of his depth; the kids, Lily and Violet (the helmer’s daughters, Lillian and Violet Collins), are a handful; the dog is adding insult to injury; and Mom is nowhere to be found. John’s anxiety suggests there’s been a tragedy, maybe a death, and his lack of child-care prowess suggests it might have been recent. The sense that he’s going to lose one or both of these kids only ratchets up the angst.
As it turns out, John is only the babysitter, a development that provides relief as well as a new set of questions: Why is a twentysomething taking care of someone else’s kids all day? (And what kind of mother would hire him?) John seems to have something to prove: When he’s not with Lily and Violet, he’s pursuing an implacable redhead named Courtney (Courtney Davis), who greets his flowers and entreaties with mute fury. Something’s transpired between them that isn’t happening now; the melancholic John would like it to resume, but Courtney won’t give him the time of day, unless it’s to give his flowers back.
Collins provides all the visual signifiers and other clues necessary to make this very Carver-ish story blossom within a spare narrative framework. No unnecessary verbiage is wasted as the script fills in its character outlines: Courtney’s iron-curtain treatment of John turns him into a stalker, enabling him to catch sight of Courtney and her new boyfriend (Macon Blair), who (painfully) has to jumpstart John’s battery-challenged car as Courtney watches, not quite believing what she’s seeing. As Macon and John develop their own bromance, the echoes of “Jules and Jim” become more pronounced, and the plotline takes several turns involving booze, wedding dresses and vast oceans of recrimination.
The charms of “You Hurt My Feelings” lie not in what occurs, but in how it moves seamlessly from one chapter to another, balancing the incipient irony with moments of naked emotion that arrive like brief, furious thunderstorms. While not destined to be everyone’s cup of domestic bliss, the film also uses its child actors to great advantage, getting a level of naturalism from them most directors never achieve. Collins may have been using his own kids, but as John would likely attest, it still couldn’t have been easy.
Production values are good, if aptly minimalist: There is almost no music, and only a modicum of words.