It’s not a film that did well (at all) at the box office, and perhaps with good reason: it’s quiet and stilling in its revelations, and thus requires a setting that is equally quiet to take it in. Hateship, Loveship, which came out in 2014, is a film for the small screen, preferably one at home, where its fine-boned performance by Kristen Wiig doesn’t have to compete with the attendant noise and clamor of a big screen showing. The combined weight of so much popcorn, endless movie previews, and loud movie-hall acoustics would be enough to crush it, and while some might consider that a weakness of the film, my own feeling is that there are certain packages marked “fragile” you really don’t want to crush, and this is one of them. In Hateship, Loveship, it is Wiig’s treatment of her character, Johanna, that is nuanced and delicate, and not the character herself: Johanna is actually quite strong, but when we meet her we don’t know this about her, we only know that she is dutiful. Discovering who she is beyond that is the focus of this film, and the process imbues Hateship, Loveship with a feeling of suspended animation, not unlike watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, though the transformation that takes place in Johanna is internal rather than external. And then again, perhaps its more accurate to say that it is our own perception of her, rather than she herself, that is the object of the transformation.
The film’s movie poster portrays Wiig’s character early in the film, when we first meet her: looking tentative and uncertain, Johanna clutches her packed suitcase as she stands against a background of wallpaper that practically matches the print of the dress she is wearing. It’s a telling shot: Johanna is very much a wallflower who, prior to packing her suitcase, was employed as the caretaker of an elderly woman. In the opening scene, the woman passes away and the odd-duck strangeness of Johanna becomes apparent in the way she takes great pains to lay the old lady out (to make her presentable) before calling the coroner. I should relate that at this early point in the film we don’t know Johanna’s relationship to the deceased, but in the rote way she undertakes these duties, without any kind of emotional reaction, we come to understand that Johanna is “the help”, so to speak, and that she is impeccable in that role. By the time she has packed her bag and moved onto the next town and next client — a well-to-do elderly man who lives in a big house with his teenage granddaughter, somewhere in Iowa — a clear picture of her has emerged. She is very much alone in the world and she is dutiful to a fault: in other words, to the detriment of her own well being and sense of self. She appears to have made a career of putting everyone else’s concerns before her own, and when an attractive man, a visitor to the house where she is now employed as a live-in housekeeper, shows her a small bit of attention, she responds in a way that is not surprising: she’s grateful, she starts to see herself differently, and she becomes hopeful in a way that makes her gullible and ripe for a hoax.
In this case, the hoax isn’t perpetrated by the attractive man, whose name is Ken (Guy Pearce), the son-in-law of Johanna’s new employer, Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte). It is perpetrated by Ken’s daughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) and Sabitha’s conniving best friend Edith (Sami Gayle), who is the true mastermind of it. Sabitha’s collusion can be attributed to her “bff” connectedness with Edith and maybe to feelings stirred by her family’s misfortune. On the surface, the McCauley home seems pleasant: Mr. McCauley is a gentleman, the house is well-maintained, and Sabitha seems like a normal teenager, sulky and sometimes difficult, but otherwise not requiring much care from Johanna. Yet attendant with Ken’s visit is a sense of tragedy: Johanna learns that he is the black-sheep of the family whom Mr. McCauley blames, perhaps rightly so, for the death of his daughter, Sabitha’s mother, and there are tell-tale signs that he’s struggling to get his life back together and making only shaky progress at it. While Mr. McCauley pays loving attention to his granddaughter and at one point in the film gifts her with a car, Ken, in his disheveled state, looks like he couldn’t be counted on to provide her a home. Even so, in spite of her good relationship with her grandfather, Sabitha clearly misses Ken, who despite his problems is quite charming. During his visit he takes Sabitha, Edith and Johanna out to eat, and weeks after returning to Chicago, sends a letter that includes a brief note for Johanna, saying he was glad to meet her and expressing his confidence in her ability to take care of his daughter. He signs it “Your Friend, Ken,” and like a crumb to a starving bird, it surprises and touches Johanna to the degree that she overreacts to it, writing a letter back to him. When she asks Sabitha for his mailing address, Edith is there and volunteers to mail it on her way home. Instead she opens and reads it with Sabitha, and though it is mostly a polite letter thanking Ken for his note and telling him a little about herself, Edith senses Johanna’s hopefulness. The two girls decide to play a trick on her and begin writing fake letters from Ken using an email address they create in his name.
Watching the transformation in the way Johanna views herself during the ensuing weeks of this false correspondence is like reliving the moment in time when you had your first crush. It recalls emotions that are, by turns, awkward and dreamy, and because you know that she is being set up for a very big fall — a fall far bigger than most of us have probably dealt with, due to the escalation of affections and promises made in the letters — it causes one to feel more than a sense of pained embarrassment for her. The level of cruelty in this set-up is high and the pain one feels for Johanna is acute because she is not like most lonely-heart girls one encounters in movies. For one thing, she’s not a girl, she’s a grown woman, and it appears she has no one waiting in the wings: no family or friends to scoop her up and put her back together in the aftermath of what seems like a certain calamity.
However, one of the beauties of this film, and of Johanna’s character, is in seeing how calamities are overcome. Sometimes it is by stretching ourselves and daring to exceed what we think of as our capabilities, and sometimes it is by drawing on the capabilities we already have … that might not look like strengths to other people. Johanna’s grievous embarrassment when she arrives in Chicago with her life-savings in her purse — only to find out that Ken is a druggie living in a run-down shell of a motel (his sole possession), who has no knowledge of the correspondence she thought she’d exchanged with him — is absolute. So, too, is the love that grew inside of her during this time, and when she sees how unwell he is and the seedy conditions under which he is living, she couples that love with the other absolute in her life: her sense of duty. It is a thing that dovetails nicely with love, but it also can be taken advantage of and not returned. For Johanna, duty seems to be the answer to her calamity — the thing to do in the face of it that cancels it out — but by the end of the film, this sense of duty finds its optimal tongue-and-groove connection.
There is a moment in Hateship, Loveship’s final scenes where Johanna encounters Sabitha’s friend Edith one last time. She and Ken and their baby have come back for Sabitha’s high school graduation, and at a party at the school, Johanna approaches the snack line to get a cup of punch and happens to overhear Edith telling a gentleman about her plans for college. “Congratulations,” Johanna says to her in a quiet and sincere way. Edith nods and continues talking to the man, elaborating her plans to major in pre-med and apply to Cornell medical school and go to Europe and start a family by the time she is 26. When she notices that Johanna is still standing there listening, she looks at her disdainfully and says, “What do you want?”
After the briefest of pauses, Johanna replies, “I have what I want,” smiles, and walks away.