Reflections on honesty and emotional fragility
I believe that most writers and artists have their lives segmented into two worlds. One comprised of fellow creatives in our field (existing largely, these days, in the realm of social media). The other is in front of our faces, revolving around family and friends who know us more fully–and yet may find our creative passions more difficult to understand.
Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, You Hurt My Feelings, is placed almost squarely in the latter realm. Its protagonist Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is an author and professor of writing, married to therapist Don (Tobias Menzies).
Though not a writer himself, he’s loving and supportive of her work just as she is with his, yet their strong marital bond exists outside the scope of their careers. But an existential crisis is spawned in Beth when she discovers Don has been lying to her about liking her newest, yet-to-be-published book.
Building from that strikingly simple premise, Holofcener raises several piercing questions in You Hurt My Feelings. When is it okay to lie to spare someone’s feelings? How much of a person is wrapped up in their career? Do you have to understand the profession to understand the person? How do we navigate people’s feelings about ourselves and our work? What is the right way to communicate?
Holofcener touches on some of these questions in the very first scene, a blunt and funny opener in Don’s office, in which Amber Tamblyn and David Cross are a hilarious pair seeking couple therapy. The two are direct and harsh, telling each other exactly what they hate about the other person. Don does his best to calm the storm, prompting them to continue being honest, but to “try it again with less contempt.”
And there you have it. Honesty, but with less contempt. It sounds simple, but most of Holofcener’s characters just can’t get it right, often communicating to each other via passive aggression or blatant lies. On the other end of the spectrum from Tamblyn and Cross’ married couple, Beth struggles with not being honest enough with herself and her loved ones.
She’s one to give effusive praise to her son (Owen Teague) for his writing capabilities, despite never having read a word he’s written. Though spoken with the best of intentions, her remarks can’t be interpreted by her son as anything but phoney.
Through these examples of communication that miss the mark, Holofcener aptly translates the common feeling that there are only two choices. Honesty and insult, or the sparing of feelings through lies. But life is more complex than that, and healthy relationships demand we try harder.
The exploration of these rich themes could only have been made richer through the development of Beth’s professional world. She’s an established author, with an agent and a published memoir. I find it hard to believe Beth–especially as someone so desperate for approval–could write in a vacuum, without her own writing group or online community to bounce ideas off of.
It’s not that Holofcener doesn’t acknowledge the creative bubbles that surround and separate artists. When Beth and her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) check the price of a designer bench, Beth finds it exorbitant and unreasonable. But as an interior designer herself, Sarah respects it–because it’s part of her creative world, separate from Beth’s.
I wonder, then, why Beth’s professional world was not expanded to allow the film not only to dig into the reasons why her husband might not understand what she does–but also to ask the film’s questions about honesty and communication with more context about how the professional and personal worlds do and don’t intersect?
Ultimately, You Hurt My Feelings is a thought-provoking reflection of the insecurity and emotional fragility that comes from putting ourselves out there, if a slightly unpolished one. Holofcener has much to say on love, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. And her reflections, brought to life by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ vulnerable performance, won’t at all hurt your feelings–but will rightly prompt you to examine them.
Verdict - 7/10