Liza Johnson's proudly frustrating Hateship Loveship is a film you long to like. As middle-age virgin Johanna, buttoned-up, buttoned-lipped Kristen Wiig seems to have landed in the Midwest from Mars -- she could be The Maid Who Fell to Earth. In real life, Johanna would be wearing mom jeans and sweatpants. But Johnson sticks her in faded dresses with Peter Pan collars that haven't been seen outside Amish country in decades. When Johanna furtively slips on a pair of her boss's granddaughter's sunglasses, she looks like an alien studying how to blend in. Eventually, we learn Johanna's origins are grimly terrestrial. Since she was 15, she's been the caretaker of an elderly woman who kept her at an emotional remove.
Johanna didn't even know how old she was when she died. It's been a beige life. Against the shabby wallpaper in the opening scenes, Wiig's red hair is the sole jolt of color. Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) is Johanna's second employer, mainly so she can watch over his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Johanna's only been in his house for a few hours when his estranged former son-in-law, Ken (Guy Pearce), calls her "gorgeous," buys her a burger, and then takes off for Chicago. His cheap, forgettable kindness upends Johanna’s world, but it's clear to us Ken's a rat: a meth-snorting ex-con who breaks everything he touches.
You become desperate to hear Wiig laugh, and when that starts to look impossible, you start wondering what exactly the film, inspired by an Alice Munro short story, wants to accomplish. It's too painful to be uplifting, and too private to explore what was clearly child abuse.