You Hurt My Feelings review – Nicole Holofcener delivers another winner

It tracks that writer-director Nicole Holofcener would devote an entire movie to the queasily uncomfortable limits of honesty in relationships, given how her work, from Walking and Talking to Friends with Money, has always traded on her ability to be unblinkingly frank about how we treat one another. How honest should we be to those we care about if we know our answers will hurt them? Is lying to protect feelings ultimately a sign of real love or is it the opposite, allowing someone to develop a false idea of who they are and what they can do? And what happens when they find out how you really feel?

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In You Hurt My Feelings, Holofcener takes these gristly questions and uses them to poke holes in an otherwise annoyingly happy, borderline smug, marriage. Writer-professor Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and therapist Don (Tobias Menzies) are as copacetic as could be, still passionate, still sharing each other’s meals (much to the disgust of their son) and still supporting each other professionally. Beth is coming off the back of a well-reviewed yet under-read memoir detailing the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her father (she darkly wishes at times he had been worse so it could have sold more copies) and is trying to get her first novel published. Even after her agent finally confesses that she’s unsure of its commercial viability, Don continues to tell her how talented she is and, having read every draft, how fantastic her book will be.

But one day, the unimaginable happens when Beth overhears Don tell her sister’s partner that he doesn’t rate the book at all and is fatigued by reading draft after draft. Beth is crushed (the scene is smartly played for heartbreak over humour) and has to find a way to live with this knowledge, causing an inevitable unravelling.

It’s an ingenious way to light a fuse, a brief candid moment causing the kind of deep cuts that may never fully heal. Holofcener’s characters have that liberal “Well the world is falling apart so should we really be this distracted by the small stuff?” awareness but it’s trumped by the more realistic emotional gut response of “My feelings are hurt and that sucks.” Beth and Don are grappling with the toll of age, with Don considering cosmetic surgery and Beth worrying that she might have wasted time on something she’s just not good at, but they’re never too old to grow out of the desire to be liked or appreciated or taken seriously, and unvarnished truths sting no matter the age.

Holofcener nimbly explores the differing limits and context of honesty throughout the film with Don’s patients finding a way to admit his failings as a therapist, Beth’s sister (a note-perfect Michaela Watkins) dealing with both her actor husband’s creative spiral and the whims of her interior decorating clients, and Beth and Don’s son reacting to what he perceives as supportive dishonesty, pretending he was good at things growing up when the opposite was true. As is almost always the case with Holofcener’s work (her 2018 Netflix adaptation The Land of Steady Habits acting as her only real fumble), this subtle thematic film is deceptively deft, sparking little trails of thought as we watch, wondering what we would do or how we would react or what we could tolerate.

It’s always such a joy to spend time with Holofcener’s characters: smart, self-aware, blunt and casually bruising in ways that never feel comically heightened despite situations that could be adjacent to those used in a sitcom (a silly sequence here involving a gun is a solitary blip). Her writing can be confronting and tough but funny and, vitally, full of warmth. There’s such richness of detail in the tiny observations her characters make not just about each other and how we act but about life and life in New York (mourning uncool coffee shops, missing sticky diner menus and bemoaning the absurd cost of furniture).

Reuniting after 2013’s exquisite Enough Said (a film that works well as many things but stands as truly one of the last great romantic comedies), Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus again make for perfectly pitched partners. Louis-Dreyfus is such a specific and thoughtfully controlled comedic actor, and while there are a great deal of small amusing moments (pleading with her unreasonable mother – an excellent, flinty Jeannie Berlin – so she can take home leftover potato salad in Tupperware rather than foil is a stupidly funny argument) she’s also deeply affecting at showing the muted melancholy of someone wondering if they’ll ever be OK again. Despite the potentially explosive material, Holofcener avoids high-pitched scenes of conflict but when verbal sparring does begin, it’s all believably, uneasily spiky and returning to a similar if less broad brand of uncomfortable character-based comedy as his work with Sharon Horgan, Menzies is a more-than-adept match.

For those who also have a magnetic pull to her work, Holofcener is a frustratingly un-prolific creator (she’s directed only two other movies in the last 10 years) but You Hurt My Feelings is more than enough reward for the wait.

  • You Hurt My Feelings premieres at the Sundance film festival and will be released in cinemas later this year