Holofcener: You Hurt My Feelings (2023)

In an era where franchising, universe-building and corporate acquisitions determine the aesthetic of so much American cinema, there’s something wonderfully refresing about the low stakes, low-key mood, and overall feeling of minority that attaches itself to Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, You Hurt My Feelings. Like many of her films, it revolves around a small number of middle-class characters living in New York, but it stands out for two distinct reasons. First, this comes closer, at times, to a sitcom than any of Holofcener’s previous works. Second, it’s suffused with an affect of mild tiredness, a gentle sense of exhaustion, a gracious concession to age. Both of these tendencies work beautifully side by side, since a sitcom is often the ideal venue for, and expression of, artistic tiredness. To watch a sitcom is to express a certain exhaustion with more ambitious media, which isn’t to say that sitcoms can’t be profound, but that they are typically modest in how they foreground their messages.

Something of that modesty carries over to the characters in You Hurt My Feelings, who all, with one exception, work in the Manhattan arts industry. Beth, the main character, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is a creative writing teacher, who published a memoir several years ago, and has just finished drafting her first novel. Sarah, Beth’s sister, played by Michaela Watkins, is an interior designer, and spends her days trudging through the Upper West and East sides creating bespoke spaces for demanding clients. Mark, Beth’s husband, played by Arian Moayed, is a stage actor, and an occasional film actor. Finally, Beth’s son Eliot, played by Owen Teague, is an aspiring playwright, and spends the film completing his first composition. Only Beth’s husband Don, played by Tobias Menzies, is not in the artistic field, but as a therapist, he forms a quilting-point for the New York intelligentsia and artistic community, and provides the therapeutic bedrock to the culture vultures that his wife and family service.

Right from the outset, it’s clear that the New York intelligentsia represented by this extended family exists in a diminished and muted form – or perhaps more accurately, a tired and exhausted form, since Holofcener never presumes to offer us a parable on the downward mobility of the middle class, as much as you might feel the echo of Covid’s impacts on art workers across her slightly fatigued tableaux. Her project is quieter and more intimate than that, and revolves more around the way in which a certain kind of indie chamber cinema has waned since she pioneered its heyday in the 1990s. The talkier brand of this cinema was partly inspired by the talking cures of therapy, so it makes sense that You Hurt My Feelings starts with, and periodically returns to, the decline of Don’s therapeutic practice. Not only does the action start mid-therapy, but we quickly meet some of Don’s oldest and newest patients, all of whom have long ceased to find his skill set useful. No sooner do we meet a receptive patient than Don himself confuses her father with someone else’s father. In a film that is largely gentle and mild, the most volatile moments tend to occur during these therapeutic exchanges, as when one of his couples break up with him – “We’re not here to discuss it with you, we’re telling you” – since the one thing they can agree on is the inefficacy of his work.

True to the moderate spirit of the film, Don does make an impact on these patients, by finally convincing them, through their very disinclination to continue therapy, that they do indeed want to remain together, which has been the perennial question of their couples counselling. Likewise, Don neither rejects his therapeutic calling, or resorts to the kind of trite truth-telling we see in a series like Shrinking, but instead makes an incomplete effort to change. By the end of the film, he still finds it difficult at times to move beyond therapeutic clichés when his clients confront him with his inefficiency, but he’s grown better at giving considered advice, and in the case of one of his newest patients, this seems to create a genuine mindset shift.

That concession to the exhaustion of therapy contours the main plot point of You Hurt My Feelings, which occurs when Beth overhears Don confiding to Mark that he doesn’t particularly like the draft of her new book. Beth is already somewhat anxious at this point, since her agent has condescendingly referred to her as an “old voice,” and her students abruptly reveal that they didn’t read her book before enrolling in her class. But this pushes her over the edge, creating a late and mild iteration of a pervasive trope in New York comedy – faking it. From the fake orgasms of When Harry Met Sally, to the fake orgasms of Seinfeld, from the email exchanges of You’ve Got Mail, to Jennifer Lopez posing as a socialite in Maid in Manhattan, New York comedies tend to have a particular preoccupation with passing for a higher social class, be it the intelligentsia, the aristocracy, or the convergence of the two. Here, that preoccupation with faking, and with imposter syndrome, is muted into a simple question – when it is acceptable to lie to somebody you love to preserve their self-esteem?

To the film’s credit, this question unfolds in a remarkably poignant and empathetic way. Beth’s feelings are very human, first when she confesses to Sarah that “I just need his approval, above all else,” and then when she acknowledges to Don that the book may be her “small, narcissistic world,” but that nevertheless “I’m hurt – I trusted you. I trust you.” Don’s response is equally sympathetic, as he reflects that he simply doesn’t trust his own judgement in literature, and so thought it was important to encourage Beth to pursue her vision above all else. With such a compelling account from both sides, there is no real conflict here – just a micro-discomfort that spills out into a cascade of other micro-discomforts, such as the legacy of Beth’s verbal abuse as a child, which consisted of being called “stupid” and “shit-for-brains” every now and then by her father; upsetting certainly, but unable to rise to the level of trauma in Holofcener’s film. Even the conversation between Don and Mark about Beth’s book, the conversation that sets the whole story in motion, takes place in front of the most innocuous space in the film – a sock drawer at a local department store that, Sarah tells Beth, has inexplicably become Mark’s favourite spot in New York City in his late middle age.

Part of the achievement of You Hurt My Feelings is thus to draw back from grand statements and retreat into intimate micro-discomforts without ever feeling in the slightest bit precious. Holofcener experiments with teetering as close to that threshold as possible, as when Eliot expresses his frustration at Beth – that she was so encouraging to him as a child (and so gave him unreasonable expectations), that she continues to be so supportive to him now (and so continues to infantilise him) and that she has such a healthy and respectful relationship with Don (since this tends to make Eliot feel like a third wheel). Yet even this feels understandable, in context, part of the many micro-frustrations that contour and plague our everyday lives. At a time when micro-aggressions are being scrutinised more than ever before, sometimes to an unreasonable (or just perhaps unrealistic) extent, Holofcener gives her characters, and her audience, licence to simply experience these micro-feelings, and the micro-feelings of frustration, apathy or joy that they might engender in turn. The result is minor New York cinema – when Beth reflects “it’s like I’m in An Unmarried Woman!” Sarah can only respond “What?” since Mazursky’s film, and the lineage of films made by and for the Manhattanite intelligentsia, has been gently exhausted here, and there’s something cathartic about that

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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