Hateship Loveship begins with the death of an old woman.
Her caregiver, Johanna (Kristen Wiig), calmly calls the funeral home and makes the arrangements. She does so with very little emotion. It's not that she is cold-hearted, it's that this is what she does. She cooks, and cleans. She looks after people. Now, with her current employer dead, she needs a new situation.
Johanna finds herself in Iowa working for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his snarky teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Sabitha and her bitchy friend Edith (Sami Gayle) seize up Johanna's dowdy wardrobe and shy demeanor and decide to have some fun with her. Their cruel prank is to send flirtatious letters to Johanna purportedly from Sabitha's dad Ken (Guy Pearce), who is away in Chicago.
Suddenly, as if the letters have cracked open a long blocked reservoir of emotion, Johanna is hit with an all consuming passion. She reads these fake letters repeatedly, blushing as she reads them, rushing to the mail box each morning to find more. She begins to wear lipstick, and considers buying more stylish clothing. In one oddly beautiful scene, she kisses her own reflection in a bathroom mirror. She is filled with the longing and the excitement brought on by love's potential, and her transformation is very moving. Of course, after she kisses the mirror, she quickly wipes away her mouth prints with a zap from her spray bottle. Her old self is battling her new self.
The film, directed with a light, tasteful touch by Liza Johnson - she wrote and directed the unappreciated Return (2011) - seems to take place during an eternal sundown, that time in the afternoon when the daylight is weakening, schools have emptied out, and rooms seem to get sleepy. Shabby motels, Chinese restaurants, and bus stations seem to exist for these times. It's not the setting we had imagined for Wiig when she left Saturday Night Live two years ago. Johanna is the kind of role Sissy Spacek might have played in her prime, or Meryl Streep or maybe, many years ago, Bette Davis. That Wiig, known for playing slightly hysterical characters, is able to earn our sympathy without being overly mawkish, is one of the great acting feats of the season.
Hateship Loveship is based on a story by Canadian author Alice Munro. She often writes about women struggling through some crisis or another, and being OK at the end. I've read a few of them, and I recall one about a woman who went through all sorts of turmoil, and ended with the protagonist saying that, no matter what happened, she was still the same person, the same person who loved dogs and rainstorms, and that nothing had really changed her. While watching this movie, I wondered if Johanna would have the same sort of realization, that even though she had been the victim of a horrible prank, she would still be the same old Johanna, with her apron and cardigan and ankle socks.
Emboldened by the letters and emails, Johanna journeys to Chicago where Ken is refurbishing a tacky old motel, and supposedly, dreaming about her at night. When Johanna realizes the letters haven't been coming from him, she briefly comes apart. Then, astoundingly, she goes about what she does best - cooking and cleaning. The motel is a wreck, and since she's there, she'll help out. We can tell she's dying inside, but we gradually see that Johanna is tougher at her core than we'd first imagined.
There's more. Pearce plays Ken as a weary old charmer who has hit rock bottom, but senses that Johanna might actually be good for him - a kind, pretty woman who doesn't mind housekeeping is not a bad deal for any guy. Jennifer Jason Leigh (always welcome in any movie I'm watching) has a short but memorable turn as Ken's current girlfriend. It's the kind of movie where even Leigh's character, a shady, druggie type, seems sympathetic. Wiig, though, matches these old pros. My favorite scene is when she tries on a suit she'd seen in a shop window, and we can tell that she's unhappy with it. Fear quickly crosses her face; a new life may seem exciting, but it may not fit her.
These brief revelations are what make Wiig so compelling in Hateship Loveship. They make us root for her to get what she wants.