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‘Hateship Loveship’: Kristen Wiig as an oddball who’s pretty awesome

Johann(Kristen Wiig) is duped inbelieving she’s adored by Ken (Guy Pearce) 'Hateship Loveship.'  |  IFC FILMS

Johanna (Kristen Wiig) is duped into believing she’s adored by Ken (Guy Pearce) in "Hateship Loveship." | IFC FILMS

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LOVESHIP’ ★★★1⁄2

Johanna Kristen Wiig

Ken Guy Pearce

Mr. McCauley Nick Nolte

Sabitha Hailee Steinfeld

IFC Films presents a film directed by Liza Johnson and written by Mark Poirier, based on a short story by Alice Munro. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for drug use, some sexuality and language). Available on demand and opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: May 19, 2014 12:50PM

Kristen Wiig’s performance in the unfortunately titled “Hateship Loveship” is so beautifully muted it takes a while to appreciate the loveliness of the notes she’s hitting. I can’t remember the last time someone made eavesdropping or scrubbing a bathtub so interesting.

I know. Kinda weird, right? But that’s the kind of movie we’re talking about here — a quirky, deliberately understated film that has the literate, smart feel of something based on a short story by a renowned author. (Indeed that’s what is. It’s is based on an Alice Munro story titled “Hateship Friendship Loveship Courtship Marriage.” Munro’s story was set in rural Ontario in the 1950s. The film takes place in present time, in the Midwest.)

Wiig plays Johanna, a single woman of a certain age — there was a time when such women were called “spinsters” — who has spent most of her adult life as the caretaker for an elderly woman.

When the woman dies, Johanna’s pastor sets her up with a new job in a small town in Iowa. She’ll be the live-in housekeeper for the well-to-do Mr. McCauley (a bearded and typically gruff and great Nick Nolte) and his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld, in a performance providing further evidence she’ll have a long and varied career).

Sabitha lives with her grandfather because her mother was killed in an accident and her father, Ken (Guy Pearce), is what you’d call an effing idiot, only you wouldn’t say effing.

Ken is an ex-con who is supposed to be clean and sober, but he’s got a junkie girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he’s always skulking around in search of cash, pills and coke. He lives in the cluttered, dirty home office of a shuttered hotel in Chicago. As Ken makes his pitch to Mr. McCauley, all he needs is some front money and this thing will be a goldmine. The look of disgust and resignation on Mr. McCauley’s face says it all. He’s heard this song and dance far too many times before.

Sami Gayle is Sabitha’s best friend, Edith. She’s one of those smart, pretty, self-absorbed and casually cruel teenage girls. You wonder how she could have become so cynical at such a young age. When Ken sends Johanna a simple, handwritten note saying it was nice to meet her and he’s glad she’ll be looking out for his daughter, Edith concocts a terrible, mean-spirited joke that has Johanna believing she’s being courted.

Johanna is one of those people who seems to have been born in the wrong century. She has a 1950s sensibility. She works hard all day, cleaning the house and preparing meals and running errands. Her attempts to strike a bond with Sabitha are earnest and sad. Much of the modern world seems to baffle Johanna. When she goes to the library and asks for help in setting up an email account and is told to choose a password, she asks, “My own word?” and then pauses for deep reflection, as if this decision will carry monumental weight.

Working from Mark Poirier’s adaptation of the Munro story, director Liza Johnson does a fine job of cutting between Johanna’s visit to Chicago to see Ken; Sabitha’s friendship and falling out with Edith, and even a nice little romance between Mr. McCauley (presumably widowed) and a lovely lady at the bank (Christine Lahti).

Johanna goes to Chicago utterly convinced Ken has fallen in love with her. We know the reality is very different. Once the horrible misunderstanding becomes clear, “Hateship Loveship” takes a number of surprising turns that would seem implausible were it not for the strength of the script and the performances. Ken’s always going to be the kind of guy you can’t entirely trust, and Johanna’s a bit, well, crazy, but her quiet resolve is kind of heroic.

She’s pretty awesome.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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