There’s a moment in every marriage where the best thing to do is tell a little white lie to keep the peace. There may, in fact, be many of those moments. And the power of the little white lie isn’t confined to a marriage—not telling the whole truth can be vital in maintaining all sorts of relationships, including with friends, children and parents. The question of whether one should tell these lies is at the heart of Nicole Holofcener’s new film, You Hurt My Feelings, which mines everyday interactions for essential truths.
YOU HURT MY FEELINGS ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Throughout her career, Holofcener, who wrote and directed the film, has distilled a very specific tonal quality, spanning comedy and drama in a way that feels deeply sincere and, often, a bit too on the nose. This could be your life or your relationship she’s putting onscreen, even if the details are different. It’s a sensibility she nailed in Lovely & Amazing, Enough Said and her most recent directorial effort, The Land of Steady Habits, which was released in 2018 (she has since co-written Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Last Dual). It can sound trite to call someone an auteur, but that’s what Holofcener is, a fact that is underscored by the exacting precision and unique tone of You Hurt My Feelings.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who previously worked with Holofcener in Enough Said, stars as Beth, a book author who spends her days teaching writing classes and volunteering with her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins). She’s married to Don (Tobias Menzies), a therapist who seems to have lost his love for the profession. His clients, who include Carolyn and Jonathan (real-life couple Amber Tamblyn and David Cross), have a lot of issues and Don’s confidence is waning, particularly as he begins to worry he’s aging. Beth and Don have a sweet relationship that continues to perplex their adult son Elliott (Owen Teague), who works at a weed store while writing a play. There’s a clear shared history between Beth and Don, which translates into quirky habits, like sharing the same ice cream cone, and repeat gifts, like the leaf earrings Don bestows upon Beth each anniversary. It’s a relationship that feels familiar, even if it’s not one you’ve ever been in.
Although Beth is a published author, she’s no longer at the top of her game. Her career isn’t going the way she wants and her writing students aren’t even aware she’s ever written a book. So when she and Sarah overhear Don telling Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed) he doesn’t like her latest manuscript, all hell breaks loose. How could he? How could Don, Beth’s loyal husband, lie to her face? What else is he lying about? The betrayal, although relatively slight in the scope of things, cracks the foundation of their marriage.
But despite what the trailer may suggest, You Hurt My Feelings isn’t a movie about unkindness. It’s a story about people suddenly standing on uncertain ground and what that does to them. Beth questions her ability to write along with her marriage, while Don wonders if he can actually help anyone as a therapist. Things they once believed no longer seem true. It’s enough to send anyone off the edge. Holofcener captures small moments in the characters’ daily lives—a doctor’s appointment for Beth’s mother (Jeannie Berlin), a picnic in the park, a conversation in the lobby after a play—but it all adds up to something more substantial.
Louis-Dreyfus is (obviously) pitch perfect and hilariously relatable as Beth. Menzies offers a more comedic side than he usually gets to play. Together, they create a couple who you want to root for. This lie, as well-intentioned as it is, can’t break them apart. They share ice cream cones, for God’s sake! Like us, these characters are a mess. Like us, they have sometimes dysfunctional relationships. They make mistakes and they make jokes and they feel hurt by things that might seem trivial to others. Holofcener is a master at these microcosms, which feel like a glimpse into someone’s actual life. She show it to us with empathy and curiosity in a way that feels oddly revolutionary. There’s no VFX, no stunts—just a few people attempting to navigate the ups and downs of human existence.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.