When Johanna (Kristen Wiig) first appears in “Hateship Loveship,” you’d almost look past her, her flowery apron and beige sweater a nearly identical match for the faded olive wallpaper behind her. At the center of the frame, she still always resides on the side, bedside, to be exact as she serves as the caretaker for an elderly woman who passes away right in front of us with no fuss at all.
If Johanna ever sets the tone at all, it’s for those turning the titular short story of Alice Munro’s collection of (almost) the same name into a film, a mild comedy that’s unmistakably Canadian in origin based on its gentility but equally representative of its American director Liza Johnson, who has followed up her considerate coming home drama “Return” with something just as observant and deeply felt. Rather than taking place in Munro’s neck of the woods in Ontario, “Hateship Loveship” is set in Iowa, where Johanna, having been relieved of her duties at one house is sent to another by her pastor, hired by Mr. Macauley (Nick Nolte) to look after his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) while his wayward son Ken (Guy Pearce) sets about restoring a motel on the outskirts of Chicago.
If there’s a signature to Johnson’s work so far, it’s a true appreciation for small-town life, the details of places such as the local library just right as they are about the anxieties about money and the pride people take in seemingly modest achievements. Such authenticity proves vital once “Hateship Loveship”‘s story begins to unfold, with Sabitha and her friend Edith (Sami Gayle) turning an innocent thank you note between Ken and Johanna into a quasi-Catfish situation that eventually leads the sheltered Johanna up to Illinois under the impression her one great love is waiting for her.
Although one might expect a big comic setpiece once the truth comes to light given Wiig’s participation, “Hateship Loveship” actually retreats in the opposite direction, becoming more subdued as it wears on. As a result, the film might just be the finest showcase for Wiig’s talents, able to turn the smallest crinkle at the corner of her mouth into a grand comic gesture without someone there behind the camera insistent on piling on an unnecessary exclamation point.
Wiig disappears into the role, and threatens to disappear entirely occasionally with a spare amount of dialogue at her disposal, but as Mark Poirer’s script builds up a world around her, bravely hinting here and there that she might not be the sharpest pencil in the box without making sport of it, she fleshes out the character brilliantly and brings a quiet dignity to her.
The decision to populate the rest of the cast with familiar faces produces more mixed results. Johnson elicits one of Nick Nolte’s most engaged and charming performances in some time as the Macauleys’ patriarch, giving him a romantic interest and letting him share a particularly lovely scene with Steinfeld, who ably holds the screen in her first post-“True Grit” role. Yet Pearce, who is nothing if not dependable, never quite jumps off the screen as the ex-con who Johanna falls for from afar, giving a measured turn that’s both nonjudgmental and unfortunately a little bit flat. Jennifer Jason Leigh steps in every once in a while to add a little danger to Ken’s life as a friend with benefits, but is limited to only a handful of scenes.
Still, “Hateship Loveship” reveals itself to be the kind of love story that could’ve been recounted by a friend, real in the way that romance can be instigated by a strange incident or coincidence, but happens on its own time to its own irregular heartbeat for reasons that may not even involve love. Johnson’s own ardor for her characters and settings keep the heart behind “Hateship Loveship” beating strong.
“Hateship Loveship” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays at the Toronto Film Festival twice more on Saturday, September 7th at 12:30 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre and Saturday, September 14th at the Scotiabank 1 at 9:45 a.m.