Nearly four months after Liza Johnson's drama "Hateship, Loveship" bowed at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, star Kristen Wiig made her debut in yet another offbeat feature that saw the funny lady taking on an uncharacteristically darker role, in Craig Johnson's "The Skeleton Twins." While the latter film works because it effectively and entertainingly combines high drama and charming comedy (and, no, Wiig's chemistry with former "SNL" co-cast member Bill Hader doesn't hurt matters one bit), "Hateship, Loveship" suffers due to its dedication to an oddly unsettling type of earnestness. The awkward and off-putting film waylays Wiig's talents, and the heavy, dragging drama that comprises "Hateship, Loveship" suffocates both her and her prodigious charms.
Wiig stars in the film as Johanna Parry, a reserved and awkwardly quiet caretaker who, in short order, loses her longtime client (the elderly woman passes away in the film's opening scenes) and embarks on a fresh job with a new family. Johanna has been stuck taking care of other people since she was very young, and although she seems preternaturally wise to the way both petty domestic issues and life-ending illnesses work, she's emotionally muted elsewhere. It becomes readily apparent that Johanna never had a chance to experience the normal trappings of teenhood — a random aside about working since she was 15 and barely leaving the house since eventually drive that point home — and her shyness appears to be a way to mask a deeply insecure and extremely stunted person.
Johanna's new job is at the home of the gruff but kindly Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte, who is stellar in his supporting role), helping to care for his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Teen Sabitha isn't a bad kid, but she's got some problems that might need a bit of minding — her drug addict dad Ken (Guy Pearce), her nasty friend Edith (Sami Gayle), and a dead mother (Ken's wife and Mr. McCauley's daughter who passed away thanks to some pretty horrible circumstances – hint: Ken’s drugs didn't help matters) – and Johanna is nothing if she's not good at minding the troubles of others. (See, she's just not so good at taking care of herself – the irony!)
Johanna's own troubles, however, mount when Sabitha and Edith cook up a plan to trick Johanna into believing that the handsome (but dangerous and downtrodden) Ken desires her company, both emotionally and physically. Essentially, they catfish her by way of some moony emails, and Johanna takes the bait in a big, big way. If there's one thing that Johnson’s film gets right, it's that teenage girls are horrible creatures capable of inflicting epic pain on innocents. Edith and Sabitha are mortifying, and even the teen dude they both romance at different points in the film finds their pranks to be mean. If even a teen boy thinks you're doing something bad, you're doing something bad.
The film is adapted from the title story of Alice Munro's 2001 short story collection, "Hateship, Loveship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," and is actually the second story from the book to go the big screen route (Sarah Polley adapted "The Bear Goes Over the Mountain" into her 2006 "Away From Her"), and has quite easily been updated into the modern era. Munro's original story is set in the post-war era, but despite the modern trappings of Johnson’s film – emails! – the heart of it remains the same.
Johanna's loneliness is a beast, practically its own character in the film, and it diseases every part of her. Although her isolation is understandable, it diminishes Wiig's work, as Johanna is only identifiable by her very worst characteristics and experiences. Before the audience is able to feel truly emotionally involved with Johanna, she sets out on making a mess of things, thanks to some horribly and deeply ill-advised decisions that have consequences that seem impossible to overcome. Without that necessary emotional connection, it's easy to detach from the film, letting Johanna do just whatever (and, wow, does she just do whatever) and waiting for the whole thing to drive madly towards its next unsettling and unstable plot movement.
Comedienne Wiig is clearly playing against type here – it's not that there is little humor to be found in Johanna, it's that there is no humor to be found in her – just as Steinfeld, who normally excels at playing tough but charming teens, goes straight for the gut as the deeply cruel Sabitha. Although Johnson's film and Mark Poirier's script attempt to provide redemption for both of them – along with Ken, who does nothing to actually deserve it – the returns of such endeavors are diminishing. Eventually the film, one clearly rooted in the depths of loneliness and the breadth of both human stupidity and total cruelty, winds down into something that goes for an unearned "feel-good" label, one that feels just the opposite in execution.