Wiig creates insight but ‘Hateship’ needs a touch of fable

A drab soul named Johanna Parry has just become convinced that, at long last, someone in the world loves her.

The someone lives elsewhere, so any physical affection will have to wait, but Johanna has been waiting too long already. So she stares at the bathroom mirror and then forcefully tries out some kissing on her own reflection. With tongue.

This action would be normal for a 14-year-old, but in a grown person it takes on different shades of sad, funny, and mortifying.

The moment might defeat an ordinary actor, but Kristen Wiig is not ordinary. And she really goes for it. Her performance in “Hateship Loveship” doesn’t aim for comedy in the manner of “Bridesmaids” or her “Saturday Night Live” sketches, but it is similarly uncompromising.

The film, adapted from an Alice Munro short story, requires a delicate balance between a certain kind of realism and stylization. Wiig seems to understand this, but director Liza Johnson misses the fable-like qualities of the situation and opts for a naturalistic style, which means the people come off as less than credible.

As in a fable, the story depends on a fateful exchange of letters and a misunderstanding. Johanna is the housekeeper for a man (Nick Nolte) who has recently gotten custody of his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld, from “True Grit”). He can’t stand his son-in-law Ken (Guy Pearce, in his grunge mode), whose drunken driving caused the death of Sabitha’s mother. Happily, Ken lives in Chicago, a safe distance away.

We need not narrate more of the plot, except to say that it is a story about people believing what they want to believe, which could describe so many stories.

If the film is a mixed bag, it’s an interesting choice for Kristen Wiig, who goes the minimalist route and creates some genuinely insightful moments amid the generally overstated character studies on display. This is no small achievement, given that Johanna tends to slide toward the edges of the frame, as though doing a disappearing act on herself.

The movie’s also an interesting choice for Seattle-bred producer Michael Benaroya, whose still-fledgling career has already notched some unusually literate indie properties, including “Margin Call,” “Kill Your Darlings” and upcoming pictures from Werner Herzog and William Shakespeare. If “Hateship Loveship” comes up short, it’s still a worthy attempt to peer into the American margins.

“Hateship Loveship” (2 and a half stars)

Kristen Wiig plays a drab housekeeper convinced she’s found someone who loves her, all because of a fateful exchange of letters and a misunderstanding. The movie, based on an Alice Munro short story, is too realistic in its approach — this needs a touch of fable — but Wiig’s minimalist performance is tuned in to a lonely character. Guy Pearce co-stars.

Rating: R, for subject matter, language.

Opening: Friday at SIFF Film Center in Seattle.

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