A lot of performers who come out of comedy, sketch and improvisation would rather die than do next-to-nothing on camera. Kristen Wiig, on the other hand — no problem. She can watch, and listen and be interesting. She's comfortable working on a small canvas with incremental brushstrokes, which makes her an apt match for the isolated, insulated character at the heart of "Hateship Loveship," now in a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
It's a short-story-sized project, explained by its origins in a short story by Alice Munro. Screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier relocates the material from rural Ontario to Iowa and Chicago (the film was shot mostly in Louisiana, where the filming's cheap). Wiig's character, quiet, vaguely dislocated Johanna Parry, is first seen attending to the dying woman for whom she's served as caregiver and housekeeper for years. The woman's death frees her. Her new position takes her to a new town and a larger set of challenges: She's to watch over a troubled teenager (Hailee Steinfeld of "True Grit") living with her grandfather (Nick Nolte).
The girl, Sabitha, has a prickly and wary relationship with her father, Ken, a cocaine addict played by Guy Pearce, who recently bought a run-down roadside motel in Chicago. Ken's father-in-law, played by Nolte, thinks little of the man whose drunk driving killed his own daughter. "Couldn't run a one-pump gas station," he says of Ken.
Cruelly, Johanna is led to believe that Ken is falling in love with her, thanks to a series of false emails cooked up by Sabitha and her best frenemy (Sammi Gayle). When the ruse is revealed — at a terrible moment, when Johanna shows up at the motel with her luggage — the contrivance falls apart, and in lesser hands the movie would too. But Munro's story travels unexpected places, and though not everything in Poirier's script feels organic or convincing, director Liza Johnson has a genuine and empathetic handle on both major and minor players in the drama of Johanna's new life.
This is Johnson's second feature. Her first, "Return" (the title was dull enough to kill it), was one of the better American indies of recent years, certainly in the category of indies that remain virtually unseen. In that one Linda Cardellini played an Iraq war veteran adjusting to the homefront, and though its narrative engine was a small one, Johnson's work with actors was quite special.
Same here. As Wiig's character transforms into a fuller, brighter version of herself, "Hateship Loveship" remains steady in its focus on the telling human interaction. Romance blossoms all over, and though they have only a couple of scenes together, Nolte and Christine Lahti (as a small-town Iowa bank teller) plainly enjoy each other's acting company. The same goes for Wiig and Pearce. At one point Wiig makes out with herself in the mirror, as Johanna imagines what kissing this man will be like. This bit's a different sort of funny than the rest of the picture. But the people on screen are all worth watching, as is Johnson's directorial career.
"Hateship Loveship" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for drug use, some sexuality and language)
Running time: 1:41
Opens: Friday and continues through May 1 at the Gene Siskel Film CenterCopyright © 2015, RedEye