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Sundance 2023 Review: You Hurt My Feelings – “A smart, clever comedy”

A still from You Hurt My Feelings by Nicole Holofcener, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There’s a moment in You Hurt My Feelings that was delivered so perfectly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus that it now lives in my mind rent-free.  It happens when her character, Beth, is arguing with her husband Don (Tobias Menzies).  In the midst of the argument, Don simply says “I love you,” and Beth, a look of utter disappointment and annoyance on her face says, “Oh. Okay then. Never mind!” as she turns on her heel to walk away.  It seems innocent, certainly Don means what he says, and yet haven’t we all felt dismissed like this in an argument? Like one ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you’ is meant to erase any trace of legitimacy from our anger? It was all at once hilarious and resonant.

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It’s a small moment in a film all about small moments, that finds its comedy in the details of everyday life.  This sort of observational humour is writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s speciality, and You Hurt My Feelings shines from beginning to end.  It’s the type of adult comedy we don’t really see much of anymore, a low-key, witty film that spends 90 minutes just letting people live their lives.  While there’s some small-scale conflict to keep things interesting, there’s nothing overly dramatic happening here, and yet Holofcener manages to examine how the little white lies we tell each other affect us. It might be in the way we gush over a present we don’t like, or how we tell a loved one they’re great at something when maybe… they’re really not.

It’s the latter that really presents a problem for writer Beth when she overhears Don telling her brother-in-law, Mark (Arian Moayed) that he didn’t really love her new book, but is in too deep now to really tell the truth.  To Beth, this is the ultimate betrayal, her life’s work in question.  Over tears, and a joint, she complains to her sister Sara (Michaela Watkins) and admits that she doesn’t know how to trust Don again.  But is she really so innocent?  Is anyone?  Is our overly encouraging and positive nature towards our loved ones really damaging in the long run? Or perhaps hurting one another’s feelings, just a little, allows for a chance to face the truth and better ourselves.

You Hurt My Feelings sees Holofcener reunite with Louis-Dreyfus who worked together on the acclaimed 2013 film Enough Said.    It’s clear this duo just works, with Holofcener’s sharp writing a particular match for her star’s perfectly timed delivery.  I would be overjoyed for them to make many more films together.  Yet there are no weak links in this ensemble cast.  Holofcener creates a family of likeable, yet flawed, characters for these actors to inhabit and each of them contributes to the laughs.  Watkins in particular has some wonderful scenes as well as some incredibly funny moments with Louis-Dreyfus, especially when the family dynamic includes their mother (Jeannie Berlin).

Having not directed a feature since 2018’s Land of Steady Habits, Holofcener returns with an absolute winner.  Her keen eye and relatable humour truly make You Hurt My Feelings a smart, clever comedy.  It relies on realistic perceptions and a star, indeed a cast, that can truly work with her nuanced observations.  While I hope we don’t have to wait quite as long for Holofcener’s next work, rest assured that there’s enough to love about this film to re-visit it frequently in the interim.

You Hurt My Feelings premiered at Sundance January 22nd and continues in person screenings until the 28th.  For information, head to the festival website.

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