We first meet Clare (Kathryn Hahn) drunk in the back of a stranger’s car, before she is forced to break into her own home. Only it’s the home of her ex-husband and daughter, who kicked her out days prior. Clare is proudly messy and an expert in loss and family complications. Womanhood is complicated, it’s painful, but sometimes it can be beautiful.
Produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, Tiny Beautiful Things is a touching portrayal of generations of women and how love and loss have affected their relationships. Based on an essay collection by Cheryl Strayed, it centres on Clare, a middle-aged woman struggling to hold her life together.
She ends up writing for a popular online self-help column, which forces her to confront the wounds that have been treated since her mother’s death. Clare’s mother’s death was a catalyst for her troubled past of addiction, rebellion and infidelity. It continues to haunt her and her relationship with her teenage daughter.
Tiny Beautiful Things has a lot to say about loss. The profoundly moving writing understands that grief is not tidy and can’t be presented in a straightforward narrative. Clare was just 22 when his mother died unexpectedly of cancer, and that loss echoes through every interaction she has with her daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford) and husband Danny (Quentin Plair). The aftershock of the devastation still lingers in teenage Rae, who finds fault in everything her mother does.
The show jumps randomly through time, slowly piecing together all the moments that led to current-day Clare being the woman she is. Significant milestones and life events never connect the timelines. Realistically, small everyday moments remind her of her childhood and misspent youth.
The dramas are not operatic; they are about the small regrets that often hurt as much as the big ones, like the Christmas present she hated despite all the money her mother spent on it, like the horrible argument and that one little lie that grew out of control. The little things of our past very much impact our future, both positively and negatively.
Kathryn Hahn has always excelled in the darkly comic role, making a career out of playing a woman in crisis. There is no scene in Tiny Beautiful Things where she is wrestling with multiple emotions simultaneously. She is guilty yet angry; she feels betrayed by her daughter yet wishes she was closer to her; she is desperate to be loved yet seeking independence. Hahn plumbs to Clare’s depth to find every emotional beat, yet it never comes across as manipulative. In the hands of lesser writers, this show would have been a mawkish story of grief and female relationships.
Hahn’s performance is contrasted by Merritt Wever (Unbelievable, Godless) as Clare’s nurturing mother, Frankie. She is a soft yet strong woman, but that is likely how her family remembers her. Wever mines every scene she is in for emotional depth, offering a heart-breaking look into Frankie’s last days.
Sarah Pidgeon (The Wilds) has the daunting job of playing Clare throughout her teens and twenties, in the years that shaped her fundamentally. Pidgeon eerily mimics her mannerisms and facial expressions. Pidgeon has the same spikiness yet not the vulnerability of the later years. This careful work allows the show to seamlessly transition between Clare’s past and her present, which in later episodes ungracefully collide.
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s anonymous “Dear Sugar” column, published via The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012, Tiny Beautiful Things is a painfully raw portrayal of womanhood. It has much of the spirit of the original column, with the writer’s original backstory embellished successfully for dramatic effect. Tackling the big topics like motherhood, infidelity, sex and grief with grace, the writing will inspire more than a few tears.
This type of show will have you texting your loved ones to say you miss them and you’re sorry once the credits roll. Yet, it never feels forced and saccharine. The bite and edge of the writing eliminate the emotional manipulation.
The 30-minute episodes make for tight pacing, perhaps too fast. While showrunner Liz Tigelaar (Little Fire Everywhere) uses the real estate wisely, it feels like these characters have more than half an hour of the story to give. Every episode has a theme which it sticks a little too tightly. There is certainly more the side plots and secondary characters have to give.
Hahn and Tigelaar avoid the cliché conclusions that usually tie these types of stories up too neatly. It’s no spoiler to say Clare uses her time as an agony aunt to release the baggage she has been carrying for decades, yet there is no overnight quick fix. Tiny Beautiful Things is about the journey to acceptance and the strength to get there rather than the end goal of peace.
Tiny Beautiful Things premieres on April 7 on Hulu in the U.S. and Disney+ in Canada.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy
Categories: Anything and Everything, Book Nook, Reviews, TV, Women Film-makers
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