Friday, September 6, 2013

TIFF 2013: Hateship, Loveship

Hateship, Loveship (U.S., 2013) directed by Liza Johnson, 129 minutes, Princess of Wales Theatre, 2.30p

My first TIFF film of 2013! My gf K invited me to see Hateship, Loveship. It’s sold out and premiering at Princess of Wales Theatre – a large venue seating 1,700. I get in the Rush line to grab a last minute ticket. The premise is promising, the source material great … will it live up to expectations?

The film is based on a short story by the Canadian writer Alice Munro that was originally set in the 40s and 50s in southern Ontario. The story has been shifted to Iowa in the present day (the director is from Iowa we are later informed at the Q&A). 

Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig) is a profoundly shy and lonely young woman who is hired by Ben McCauley (Nick Nolte) to serve as a housekeeper and a caregiver to his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit fame) in a small town.

Sabitha’s father Ken (Guy Pearce) is a tattoo-covered (always a cinematic code for troubled), recovering drug addict who loves his daughter and means well but never seems able to get his act together. He crashed a speedboat in which his wife Marcelle died and his daughter Sabitha was injured. His father-in-law Ben has never been able to forgive Ken. As a gesture of ill will and spite Ben takes back all the antique furniture that the couple received after their wedding. Ken hopes to get Ben to support a new venture, a run down motel that he wants to renovate and run in Chicago. Ben is affluent and able to indulge Sabitha in ways that the hapless Ken cannot. 

When Ken pens a polite note of welcome to Johanna, she responds with her own letter. Sabitha and her mean girl schoolmate Edith (Sami Gayle) fabricate a correspondence by letter, and then e-mail, that ensnares Johanna in a fictitious romance with Ken who is living many miles away in the decrepit motel unaware of the drama the two girls have concocted.

Wigg, an accomplished comedic actress best known for her stint on the TV series Saturday Night Live and for her star turn in the mega-hit Bridesmaids, is predictably quirky and sweet-natured in this role. We watch Johanna blossom from introverted virgin, enraptured lover anticipating joining her first love, then furtive sneak who leaves the McCauley family and spirits away the antique furniture that she feels rightfully belongs to Ken by shipping it to Chicago.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an appearance as Ken’s sometime girlfriend - a louche, slovenly addict who is eventually squeezed out emotionally by Johanna patiently preparing meals, cleaning house and caring for the fragile Ken in a manner that she cannot even begin to contemplate.

But the pace is a bit slow even if the actors are uniformly good. The viewer is left wondering what has driven Johanna to continue to pursue Ken even when the truth is revealed and both adults realize what the girls have done (desperation? loneliness? the prospect of being arrested for her theft?). 

Director Liza Johnson, the screenwriter Mark Poirier, actors Kristin Wiig and Sami Gayle appeared for the Q&A after the film. The audience was understandably charmed by Wigg who professed that the character of Joanna is closer to her real self than you might think when she was asked why she pursued this dramatic role.

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