Would you lie to your loved ones to protect their feelings? This is the big question Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Friends with Money) explores in You Hurt My Feelings. Using a borderline smugly successful New York couple, this movie pokes holes in the everyday white lies we tell our spouses and kids and how they can end up being destructive.
Writer-professor Beth (Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and therapist Don (The Crown’s Tobias Menzies) are floundering professionally but striving personally. Beth struggles to write her second novel after her debut memoir was well-reviewed but under-appreciated. Don is failing to pay attention at work, causing him to doubt his skills as a therapist. Clearly, they are still passionately in love with each other, sharing food and supporting each other with their passions.
Beth’s first novel detailed the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Whilst it got her foot in the publishing door, she can’t help but wish it was as well-read as some of the work of her peers. She darkly wishes she could have suffered more than just emotional abuse; then, it may have sold more. Her agent confesses she’s unsure if her sophomore attempt has commercial viability, and none of her students know she has written a book. Don keeps reassuring her that the book is fantastic; he’s read all the drafts and is confident she is talented; her agent just doesn’t understand her voice.
Beth’s sister Sarah (Tiny Beautiful Thing’s Michaela Watkins) also deals with her own struggles. She is an interior designer who can’t quite master the right lamp for her client’s ultra-chic and contemporary property. She also is dealing with her actor-husband’s (Succession’s Arian Moayed) latest creative spiral. All these problems are minute in the grand scheme of things, but they are the real-life dilemmas that build up in our day-to-day lives.
Beth is heartbroken when she overhears Don telling his brother-in-law that he isn’t impressed with the book at all. Despite taking place in a men’s sock section, the scene is played out in its agonizingly heart-breaking full length. Upon hearing this revelation, Beth spirals into not entirely unwarranted existential anguish. Beth and Sarah’s mother isn’t helping the situation either. Georgia (Jeannie Berlin) is spiky and sharp, vocally unhappy with how many copies Beth’s debut novel said. We first meet her over a mother/daughter lunch, their deadpan chemistry underplayed. In the hands of another writer, the trio’s argument over potato salad would have been brasher. In a movie filled with little observations that make these characters seem so real, the mother/daughter lunch is especially delightful.
As Beth is spiralling, Don continues to have his own work-based existential crisis. A couple he has been seeing for two years (played by real-life spouses Amber Tamblyn and David Cross) decide they want a refund because they still despise each other whilst he appears to be going around in circles with Jim (Zach Cherry). Although these snapshots of Don’s therapy sessions are amusing, especially Cross and Tamblyn’s incessant bickering over lunches, they feel underwritten compared to other elements of the story. It’s also hard to know if the film wants you to believe Don is bad at his job or that his patients aren’t really listening to him.
Beth and Don’s son is the most underwritten character in this movie. He is trying to complete his first play, working in a marijuana dispensary until he finishes. He believes his mother has given him an unrealistic perception of his talents, creating unnecessary pressure on the 20-something. There is an uncomfortable truth to the fact Beth’s encouragement of her son and Don’s support of his wife are much of the same.
When you look back on You Hurt My Feelings, very little happens throughout the entire film. All the characters feel small and unremarkable, the plot is a fraction of their lives, and the observations aren’t overblown. However, when you piece together all the characters, the details they share, and their reactions to each other, You Hurt My Feelings is a poignant piece of filmmaking.
Holofcener is a master at writing about middle-class intellectuals hurting the feelings of others. Despite the slight and almost trivial subject matter, the emotions are very raw, and Beth’s hurt is not unearned. You Hurt My Feelings also doubles as a deadpan satire on the supportive culture where people must either be very mean or very supportive of others.
Despite the brisk 90-minute runtime, we get to know these two couples in agonizing detail. They are so richly written, self-aware, yet casually bruising. The four lead characters are written with a richness and warmth that, despite their flaws, they are immensely likeable because they are so real. You don’t have to be a middle-class New Yorker to connect with the feeling of betrayal and the anxiety of wondering if you have wasted your life in the wrong job for your skillset.
You Hurt My Feelings opened in theatres in the United States and Canada on May 26
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, Films, Reviews, Women Film-makers
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