“She didn’t talk almost the entire movie! I mean, I liked it, but I thought with her it would at least be a little funny.” That was the insta-review from a woman sitting in my row at yesterday’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of Kristen Wiig’s new movie, the spare drama Hateship Loveship, in which she stars as introverted home caretaker Johanna Parry. It’s pretty clear the film isn’t going to be full of laughs just by looking at the credits — it’s based on a short story by genius Canadian author Alice Munro and directed by Liza Johnson, whose first film, 2011’s Return, starred Linda Cardellini as a struggling returning Iraq war vet. Still, fans of Wiig’s comedy might need to do a mind cleanse before they’re ready to see her like this.
Wiig hasn’t quite entered the serious Jim Carey phase of her career, but this is by far the most inward, most silent performance we’ve seen from her. It’s a good one, quietly powerful, just a bit jarring knowing her previous work. The film opens on Johanna, who dresses like an Amish refugee, bending over to smell the blankets at the crotch of an elderly woman on oxygen who’s clearly her charge. It’s Wiig’s choice to make that moment expressionless that sets the tone for the entire movie. This is a routine act, we come to understand, from a woman who’s spent her life sublimating her emotions in the service of others.
Soon, though, that routine is broken, for reasons that are easy enough to guess, and she’s moving into a new house in a new city to take care of high school junior Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives with her grandfather (Nick Nolte), but longs to be with her ex-con, drug addict dad (Guy Pearce). Sabitha and her best friend (Sami Gayle) aren’t big fans of Johanna’s presence, or her awkwardness, or her extreme plainness, and concoct a mean girl plan to get Johanna to believe she’s in a secret love letter correspondence, which awakens a passion and longing in her she’s clearly suppressed for years. There’s the occasional classic Wiig physical comedy moment, like squeezing into a tiny window, or exiting a doorway in shame only to reenter it to eavesdrop. But funny lines are rare, and make sense mostly in context, like when Johanna has to go to the library to get an email address for the correspondence and the librarian tells her she needs to come up with a password. “My own word?” Wiig asks, as if she’s never heard of such a concept.
In fact, the most laughs came after the movie was over, when the Q&A mike shorted out three times before the moderator could even introduce the cast. Wiig ran out from backstage laden with at least five more mikes for her to try, then scurried back to await her name being announced. “I’ve always wanted to do a role like this, a movie like this, and I don’t really get the chance that often, so I’m really happy about it,” she said earnestly during the Q&A. “I’ve always wanted to do dramatic stuff. People know me from SNL and from comedies, and people are often surprised when I say I want to do something dramatic. I do get nervous, like will people be okay if I don’t do something that’s me like” — she did a goofy dance and the audience cracked up. “But Liza took a chance on me and I’ll never forget it.” An audience member asked if Wiig planned on doing more roles like Johanna. She grinned. “I loved this character so much because she’s so quiet and I think she’s actually more like me in real life, to be honest. So, yeah, I’m just going to keep doing the same role. They’ll all be named Johanna, and they’ll all have her weird peasant clothes.”