September 6, 2013



Earnest and low-key to a fault, Liza Johnson’s HATESHIP LOVESHIP might have felt more at home in the Narrative Competition at Sundance than in Toronto.  It has a dramatic recessiveness, almost a passivity, for much of its length, that makes it hard to see just what kind of story it thinks it’s telling.  Ultimately, though, it gets where it’s going, and winds up as a slight but genuine charmer.

Based on a short story by Alice Munro (updated from the mid-20th century and moved from Canada to Iowa by screenwriter Mark Poirier, who can now be somewhat forgiven for his atrocious Goats script), the tale concerns Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig), an extremely reserved young woman who goes to work as housekeeper to the McCauley family, a grandfather (Nick Nolte) and his teen granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld).  Hailee’s mother died some years earlier, and her father Ken (Guy Pearce) lives in Chicago, a somewhat disreputable figure frowned upon by Mr. McCauley.  When Ken visits Sabitha, she and her friend decide as a prank to make Johanna believe that Ken is interested in her, sending her e-mails from a phony account.  Although Munro wrote the story many years ago (the false correspondence was on paper), we’d now call this “catfishing.”  It’s only a matter of time, of course, before someone finds out about the fraud, and the question is where the story will go from there, since it ultimately could just as well be a comedy or a tragedy.

Kristen Wiig’s presence in the film, in a way, typifies its difficulties through no fault of her own.  She’s played so many characters on SNL who were passive to the point of cartoon lunacy that there was a fair amount of  unintentional laughter from the film festival audience even at her most subtle, barely-discernible changes in expression or gestures, because with her in the role and no obvious signposts, people were looking for the laughs.  It takes quite a while to realize that this is meant to be a completely serious performance–and for that matter, a completely serious film.  Wiig is thoroughly convincing, once it’s clear that’s where she’s going.  Nolte is mannerism-free and wonderful (an almost random scene he has with Steinfeld late in the film, the two of them chatting on the living room sofa, makes you wish the movie could stop and just follow them for a while).  Christine Lahti and Jennifer Jason Leigh brighten up their brief roles. Pearce has the most problematic part, because his is the character who has to travel the farthest in what becomes a fairly familiar arc, but he handles it with conviction.

Hateship Loveship isn’t a visual feast, its photography and production design as understated as everything else.  Johnson, whose last film was the somewhat more dramatic Return, doesn’t push anything very hard, and it all feels a bit diffuse, as though the audience is being made to work harder than the material really requires.  There’s not an overabundance of energy evident on screen.  Still, in the end there’s more loveship than hateship here, a sweet story that’s told at its own measured pace.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."