By Chris Stults, Associate Curator of Film/Video
At any given moment between 9 am and midnight, you probably have about 30 different films to choose between at the Toronto International Film Festival. Only two days into the festival and I’m already overwhelmed. The festival is almost designed to make you feel like you should be watching something else instead of what you’re watching. But, thankfully, I’ve already seen a number of terrific films, some of which we’ll hopefully be able to bring to Columbus audiences in the coming year.
Instead of surveying the range of films I’ve seen so far (from documentations of cable car passengers in Nepal [lovely] to Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens [kind of a yawn]), I’ll focus on one very special film that is one of the standouts so far.
Wexner Center visitors might recognize the name Liza Johnson. Over the past six years, we’ve shown her videos South of Ten, In the Air, and Karrabing! Low Tide Turning in The Box (the latter two were supported by our Film/Video Studio Program and In the Air was made in Johnson’s hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio). Last year, we were proud to show her debut feature film Return as a Director’s Dialogue on Art and Social Change program, with a panel featuring Johnson and moderated by WOSU’s Ann Fisher.
Friday saw the world premiere of Johnson’s latest film, Hateship Loveship, a sensitive adaptation of a short story by the great Canadian writer Alice Munro starring Kristen Wiig, Guy Pierce, Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Christine Lahti. The film deftly handles a range of complicated tones as a housekeeper, through a cruel misunderstanding, falls in love with a drug addict. It’s so easy to imagine this material going wrong. It could avoid the darker aspects of the story and play everything for laughs. Or it could just revel in the humiliation of the central character (think of any random Austrian filmmaker and how wrong their treatment of this material would be). But Liza, as with Return, uses those darkest moments to revel aspects of human behavior and then passing through that to reach a place of great compassion and empathy. Johnson is telling humble stories of modest lives and imbuing them with great emotion. Her films are tributes to confused, unheroic lives that are neither the anti-heroes of the new American cinema of the 60s and 70s nor the quirky ordinary Joes of a generic Sundance film. These are people trying to make sense of how they got to where they are in their lives and where to go from there.
It’s become clear that, with just two films, Johnson has become one of the most vital directors of actresses working in independent cinema today. Both of her features have offered phenomenal actresses (Linda Cardellini in Return and Kristen Wiig in Hateship Loveship) the opportunity to play the richest roles of their career to date. Wiig makes the most of her first dramatic part. Initially, she appears to be playing a more tragic version of a quintessential Kristen Wiig character, but by the end of the film, she becomes a fully realized character and woman. The film allows us to watch a character and an actress come into her own.
Johnson’s talents are crafting her leading actresses’ roles and performances is most notable and welcome mainly because there are so few fully realized characters for actresses. But this shouldn’t cause viewers to overlook the remarkable casting that Johnson is able to create for her entire ensemble. With Michael Shannon and John Slattery in Return and now Nick Nolte, Guy Pierce, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hailee Steinfeld, and Christine Lahti in Hateship Loveship, Johnson is able to draw out lesser-seen aspects of her actors. Special notice should be made of the gentle performance that Johnson gets from Nolte. It’s a type of masculinity that he can play so well but rarely gets the chance (Olivier Assayas’ Clean is one of the only other examples I can think of).
It’s hard to tell the trajectory of a filmmaker’s career after only two films, but it’s fun to let your mind wander imagining Johnson developing projects with other talented actresses who are too often typecast in limiting roles. There are so many talented comedic actresses who haven’t had a chance to expand their range. How great would it be to see a future collaboration with the underappreciated Kathryn Hahn? Christina Applegate? Alia Shawkat? Maya Rudolph? Oh, how welcome would a Liza Johnson/Amy Poehler film be! Or how about dramatic actresses who still haven’t been given the well-rounded part that they deserve? Jennifer Ehle is one of the most interesting and underused actresses working today. Rosemary DeWitt needs the defining role of her career. Or Melanie Lynskey.
The list could go on and on. This type of parlor game is the type of conversation prompted by the Toronto International Film Festival, where you’re constantly imagining what the films you didn’t see are like. Here’s a toast to hypothetical films! But even more importantly, here’s a toast to the wonderful films that you’re so happy got made… like Hateship Loveship!