Steve Collins' tender drama "You Hurt My Feelings" revolves around three characters stuck in a solemn mood. Collins' second feature after "Gretchen," which was well-received on the festival circuit, "You Hurt My Feelings" adopts a patient, at times unbearably depressingly tone heavily based in inference. Despite a prolonged, aimless trajectory, Collins' minuscule cast helps contain the drama, bringing its themes to life with an enthralling collage of small moments.
The story begins with John (John Merriman), a plump, bearded young man working as the nanny for two hyperactive toddlers. In an amusing prologue, he wanders through the frozen countryside, growing weary in his attempts to contain them. Although clearly not enjoying himself, he desperately wants to change that, as later scenes make clear: His ex-girlfriend, Courtney (Courtney Davis) left him for unspecified reasons relating to his irresponsibility, and he has taken the children into his care in a last-ditch effort to prove otherwise. Meanwhile, Courtney--a disgruntled waitress with plenty of her own emotional baggage--has started dating Macon (Macon Blair, "Murder Party"), a sloven man-child whose hilariously lackadaisical demeanor suggests Courtney has less-than-perfect taste in men.
Over the course of a year, John increases his attempts to win back Courtney while falling into a comical friendship with Macon. That's nearly the entire story arc of "You Hurt My Feelings," which maintains a lyrical stillness throughout. Even when Macon and John hit up a neighborhood bar and engage in drunken wrestling antics, the sequence never climaxes. It simply continues, until Collins cuts to their chaotic journey home, when John must deliver a wasted Macon to Courtney's doorstep. Needless to say, the former couple don't engage in a shouting match. Collins keeps the volume down, and the dialogue sparse.
It's so sparse, in fact, that "You Hurt My Feelings" more or less functions as a silent film. John has no more than a dozen or so lines; Courtney has even fewer than that. There are almost no extended conversations at all. Collins follows their plight with fragments of scenes that often take place before or after arguments or other exposition, making the atmosphere more essential to the narrative than any given twist.
The developments that Collins does offer don't break any particular molds. A late-act crisis bears the mark of that writerly impulse to use an unexpected tragic event as a handy agent of change. Sometimes, Collins' supremely understated approach works against him: Since we never get to hear these people say much of value, we know so little about them that it's tough to buy the connection they share.
Nevertheless, the emotions stand strong, mainly thanks to the actors' complex expressions, and the delicate images of natural beauty (captured by "Putty Hill" cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier) filling their countryside climate. Collins moves through a vast cycle of interpersonal exchanges without every indulging in a tell-all monologue. That's an impressive achievement, because it means "You Hurt My Feelings" is entirely composed of them.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too small and non-commercial for much a release, "You Hurt My Feelings" should garner acclaim on the festival circuit, but will probably require a self-distribution strategy beyond that.
criticWIRE grade: A-
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