04/15/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Hit and Myth: 'Hateship Loveship'

The motif of the "magical nanny" is turned on its head before the credits roll in Hateship Loveship, written by Mark Jude Poirier, based on a short story by Alice Munro, and directed by Liza Johnson.

The story begins in Plainfield, Iowa, caregiver Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig, in a dramatic turn) must dress her dead former employer, and arrange for the elderly woman's burial; then, Johanna's off on a bus trip to Solon, Iowa, to start a new job as a nanny for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his troubled teenaged granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who's lost her mother Marcelle in a car accident.

The granddaughter's estranged, pill-popping father Ken (Guy Pearce) invites Johanna to come along to Astroburger with Sabitha and her warped friend Edith (Sami Gayle). Later, a quick note from Ken to Johanna becomes the cruel basis for a sort of Cyrano/Much Ado About Nothing/Catfish type of epistolary confusion, in which the two teenagers pretend, via e-mail, to be Ken falling in love with Johanna. The lengthy fake correspondence between the two leads Johanna to eventually withdraw money from her savings, move furniture from Mr. McCauley's garage that had once been given to Sabitha's parents but reclaimed, and head to Chicago, where she surprises drug-plagued Ken in the dilapidated motel he's bought. Ken already has a girlfriend, the formidable Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's none too pleased with Sabitha's arrival out of the blue. It's what Johanna chooses to do at this turning point that illustrates who she really is and what she wants.

The "magical nanny," a popular trope used in Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee, as well as other books and films, is a mysterious female outsider who comes along just in time to heal a household and/or a family. Fairy tale characters related to the "magical nanny" may be the "fairy godmother" as well as the "witch"; yes, even Mary Poppins flew with the aid of her umbrella. "Cleaning" is frequently a part of a magical nanny's work, both literally and figuratively. Purification, physically and spiritually, is necessary before things may start anew. It's no accident that Ken's abandoned roadhouse in need of renovation is named "The Oasis."

As a "magical nanny" figure, Johanna arrives twice in the film as "unexpected." Although Mr. McCauley has prearranged for her to work in Solon, he's surprised when she arrives all by herself one day, pulling her lone suitcase, not unlike Poppin's tapestry bag. Ken, too, is taken aback when Johanna shows up unannounced at his rundown Illinois lodge, a victim of the fake letters exchanged. But in both Solon and Chicago, Johanna puts on her apron as part of her cleaning ritual, and gets to work. She vacuums, cooks, and straightens sheets in Solon; she scrubs the tubs, floors, and stove like crazy in Chicago.

Johanna doesn't outwardly perform "magic," but there are some prescient things she's able to do that most of us cannot. One example occurs in Solon, when she buys a fancy green dress to wear, tells the store clerk that she'll be married in it, and then, miraculously, that eventually does happen. The film's title, adapted from Munro's story, is based on the old game of writing your name and a desired lover's appellation down on paper, ignoring any duplicated letters, then counting out "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" on your fingers with the rest until the answer is revealed. Is it a charm to foretell the future? Although not explored in the film except in one line of dialogue, it does evoke the idea of a magical love ritual.

Even without overt magic, it's clear Johanna is a healer. Ultimately, Hateship Loveship addresses the question: What makes a home? Johanna leaves the safety of McCauley's big house in Solon for the gamble of love from decay, including Ken's troubled past, his addictions and guilt, and lack of income. It's a nice moment at the end of the movie when Johanna tells a still testy Edith that she's now got what she wants: Johanna has revived the McCauley family and made a home of her own.