I’ve pretty much always conducted myself as an adult with the philosophy of being honest. My basic litmus test is that I only lie if the benefits of doing so significantly outweigh the consequences of getting caught. This applies to things ranging from how I’d approach a reality show like Survivor or Big Brother to piddly shit like not correcting the checkout clerk at the supermarket if they only charge me for one frozen pizza instead of two. But over the years I’ve tempered this behavior somewhat, mostly in ways that likely seem fairly obvious to people who aren’t me. For far too long in my younger days I was brutally truthful with people, and it got me into trouble. I never set out to offend or hurt anyone, but if my opinion was solicited, I offered it fairly unfiltered, consequences be damned. I don’t do that anymore, not because I’ve suddenly decided to be more duplicitous, but because I learned that in a ton of cases, it just doesn’t matter.
If your boss asks you to make a change in your work, even if they present it as an option, there really isn’t one, so don’t push back if the aggravation is going to take more time than just doing what they want. If a friend says, “I just love the new Taylor Swift album. What about you?” make some diplomatic hedging comment like, “I haven’t heard it yet,” or if you want to kibosh the topic, politely say, “Not my thing, but I’m glad you like it,” rather than my default setting of, “She’s the musical equivalent of revenge porn — which is illegal in California and thus should be banned — and her entire catalog of breakup songs doesn’t even approach the quality of one verse from ‘You’re No Good,’ especially Linda Ronstadt’s version.”
What I’m saying is that telling the world what you really think should be reserved only for the important things. That’s at the core of the delightful, clever, and often hilarious You Hurt My Feelings, written and directed by Oscar nominee Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). The whole film centers on the casual lies we tell each other and ourselves, and how, depending on context, the truth can hurt so much that dishonesty is the greater good. And for the record, this blog counts when it comes to my assessment of “important” things, as film is my passion, this blog is my forum and hobby, and I always welcome dissent and discussion even when we don’t agree.
Set in New York, the film stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a nomination-worthy performance as Beth, a writer and academic who’s anxious about attempting to publish her next book (a work of fiction in contrast with her deeply personal memoir that saw moderate success). Constantly second-guessing herself, which stems from anxiety due to verbal abuse as a child, Beth solicits opinions from everyone she knows, including husband Don (Tobias Menzies), all of whom assure her that the drafts they’ve read of the novel are good. She’ll sell the book, and everything will be fine.
However, one day while Beth is out and about with her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), the pair notices their respective mates shopping (Sarah is married to struggling actor Mark, played by Arian Moayed), and while trying to surprise them, they overhear Don telling Mark that he thinks Beth’s book is actually kind of crap. This news silently devastates her, leading her to question the basic trust she’s had in her partner of over 25 years.
There’s a lot of fun to be had here, mostly thanks to the fantastic performances of the entire main cast. They all have their insecurities at work, and their own personal failings. Don is a therapist, but he mostly just listens without offering solutions to people’s problems (his interactions with a bickering couple played by Amber Tamblyn and David Cross are pure gold), and he’s gotten so “tired” in his work that he often mixes up people’s issues across sessions. Sarah is an interior designer for rich people who can’t decide on anything, leading her to question her skill in her chosen profession and to become increasingly cynical about people in general. Mark is forever certain that his acting ambitions will be shattered, even in those few moments when things are looking up, leaving him continually fatalist and morose. Added to this core four is Don and Beth’s son, Elliott, played by Owen Teague. Fresh out of college and living away from home for the first time, he’s working in a pot shop while trying to write a stage play in his spare time, as well as dealing with his first major relationship.
The way these characters interact and deconstruct the situation is staggeringly brilliant writing. The entire plot is predicated on what is basically a standard story beat from an old sitcom, that of someone being aware of a secret. The script expertly lampshades the trope through these interpersonal relationships, as on less ambitious TV shows, the whole issue can be resolved with one simple, adult conversation, but is avoided so the episode can be padded out to 22 minutes. Here, though, it’s not so easy. Beth has generational trauma tied to criticism and disingenuousness, which leaves her deeply hurt. Meanwhile, Don does get caught in a lie, but it’s a common, normally harmless lie, told in good faith to keep his beloved from getting stressed out. As he notes later, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like her book. What matters is that she likes it, and is confident enough to publish.
More importantly, Beth herself projects this exact behavior onto Elliott, prodding him to finish his draft so that she can read it, because she just knows it’s going to be great. Anyone who’s ever worked as a writer (or knows someone in a similar field) is aware that first drafts are often just the opposite. Many of the best scripts and stories out there start as little more than good ideas that need a TON of revisions to get right. But for Elliott, all this does is add more pressure to him, because he feels the need to live up to some standard that a) he can’t meet, and b) doesn’t really exist. What Beth sees as a major red flag with Don is simply good, supportive parenting when the target and context shift. And not for nothing, she does realize that she works in an industry where critiques and rejections come with the territory, despite her need for validation.
This is a really solid bit of narrative nuance, taking an idea that’s been done a million time and actually examining the nuts and bolts of it in the “real” world rather than just a soundstage with four cameras. More importantly, the story takes instances like this and uses them for crucial exercises in perspective, steadfastly refusing to paint with broad strokes or lump things together that only have surface similarities. The film emphasizes the need to not make proverbial mountains out of molehills (one of the few flaws in the picture is the fact that the entire cast is filled with successful people dealing with the most trivial of first-world problems, and even then it still has a purpose) while not dismissing the very real pain that microaggressions can cause or the lived experience of those feeling what they feel in a given moment.
All that would be well and good on its own, but Holofcener keeps a constant focus on the inherent humanity of the characters, including a wonderfully wry sense of humor. Even though the film offers some very welcome looks at how people react to obstacles in the modern world, it’s filled to the brim with heartwarmingly funny moments that only enhance the proceedings rather than sacrificing momentum or credibility for the sake of a laugh. A rundown of gifts that Beth and Don have hated from one another is a prime example of this level of comedy done to perfection.
It all comes back to this idea of well-meaning dishonesty. In a world where “faking it” for the sake and sanity of others (not to mention one’s own wellbeing) is a standard aspect of our existence, it’s comforting and borderline profound to simply take 90 minutes and talk about how we try to spare feelings, how we can fuck things up even with the best of intentions, and how, crucially, even when that happens, we all can forgive one another because we’ll always try to do a little better each time. Even back when I was more confrontational and loud with my opinions, what saved me (noted by my manager at the time, one of the few bosses I’ve ever had who treated me as the person I was rather than as a cog in a machine) was the fact that I was self-aware, recognizing and copping to it when I erred and endeavoring to not repeat the same mistakes. That’s what this movie so beautifully hammers home, the idea of self-awareness. It’s about realizing how we can be just as guilty of the same sins we damn others for, and doing the work necessary to improve ourselves when our imperfections are brought to light. Because yes, when it really matters, you should always be honest, even if it hurts in the moment. You’ll do more harm than good in the long run. But when it’s just about being a nice person and making someone feel good when they need it, sometimes just telling them what they want to hear is the most truthful thing you can do.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What little white lies do you tell to your loved ones? Have you ever tried to fire your therapist? Let me know!