A considerably more satisfying seriocomic vehicle for Kristen Wiig than the recent “Girl Most Likely,” “Hateship Loveship” marks fine, steady progress for director Liza Johnson following her spare 2011 debut, “Return.” Adapted from Alice Munro’s short story about a shy, unsophisticated housekeeper who falls victim to a cruel prank with ultimately surprising consequences, this delicate and absorbing character study gets some unique performance mileage out of Wiig, infusing a potentially morose role with subtle oddball touches that keep things amusingly off-balance. The gently moving result is probably too restrained to stand out amid similarly classy and character-driven indie fare, but could carve out a small, appreciative audience in specialty release.
The opening passages of Mark Jude Poirier’s script introduce us to the unexceptional life of Johanna Parry (Wiig), who quietly spends her days working as a caretaker. Shortly after the passing of her latest elderly charge, she accepts a job working for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), looking after the household as well as his teenage granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Also in the picture is Sabitha’s rakish, irresponsible father, Ken (Guy Pearce), although he leaves soon after Johanna arrives; there’s clearly old friction between him and McCauley, some of it stemming from a motel project Ken wants his father-in-law to invest in, some of it stemming from the untimely death of Sabitha’s mother years earlier.
Before Ken leaves, he leaves the new housekeeper a note of encouragement — a nice gesture that Johanna, unaccustomed to being treated kindly or flirted with, takes it upon herself to answer. But her letter is intercepted by Sabitha and her troublemaking best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), who, rather than mailing it as promised, write back to Johanna pretending to be Ken. With the unthinking malice that can come so easily to teens with technology at their disposal, the girls initiate a friendly and increasingly intimate email correspondence with the unsuspecting Joanna, who becomes thoroughly smitten with the man she thinks is keeping up his end of the conversation.
Taciturn by nature, and soft-spoken when she bothers to talk at all, Johanna doesn’t give Wiig much dialogue to work with, requiring the actress (outfitted in mostly drab, unflattering outfits by costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser) to convey the character’s rapidly evolving feelings almost primarily through facial expressions and body language. There are a few moments that risk turning the character into an object of mockery, as when Wiig, in an admittedly funny bit, acts out a private fantasy by French-kissing a mirror. Yet so reserved and withdrawn is Johanna, and yet so naive and trusting, that one readily understands and sympathizes with her actions when she packs her bags and drives off to surprise Ken in person.
Even still, it’s hard not to cringe inwardly when Johanna arrives and stumbles on a rather different scenario from what those phony emails had led her to expect. The dramatic burden increases considerably as Johanna gets a firsthand glimpse of the real Ken, who lives in a squalid apartment, smokes relentlessly when he’s not sniffing cocaine, and is not above a little petty theft as the occasion requires. Yet it’s in this tricky territory that “Hateship Loveship” finds its footing, proceeding carefully but assuredly as Johanna, facing a broken dream and a fair degree of humiliation, does what comes naturally: She takes care of the situation. It’s an on-the-nose metaphor, perhaps, but for this quietly capable woman, cleaning house isn’t just a responsibility but also an escape, a form of therapy, and a far more practical solution than sulking or lashing out.
Under Johnson’s patient, observant direction, a relationship that might sound ridiculous on paper lives and breathes with surprising tenderness and plausibility onscreen. Wiig nicely conveys Johanna’s quiet determination to make the best of things, as well as her growing sense of satisfaction as she realizes that she has. And the film has a major asset in Pearce, giving Ken an essential core of decency without sentimentalizing or excusing his laziness, dishonesty or substance abuse.
The film views all its characters in similarly complex terms, a courtesy that the actors reward in nuanced, sensitive fashion. Steinfeld is particularly memorable as a teenager whose moodiness is a natural expression of neediness, and Nolte is in fine, lively form as an old man with nothing but the best intentions for those he loves. Christine Lahti makes the most of her brief scenes as a bank teller who gets drawn into the situation, while Jennifer Jason Leigh is seedy, scowling perfection as Ken’s junkie girlfriend. Even Gayle, playing perhaps the closet thing the film has to a straightforward villain, manages to give her character a vulnerable center.
The locations are never identified, but the film was shot in Lousiana, as evidenced by McCauley’s plantation-style home, contrasting nicely with the rundown motel where much of the second half is set. While the title isn’t exactly a grabber, it’s been wisely whittled down from that of Munro’s story, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.”