Kathryn Hahn Is Captivating In A Terrific Adaptation  

Apr 4, 2023

It has been nearly a decade since Reese Witherspoon received an Oscar nomination for playing Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” The adaptation of Strayed’s unforgettable memoir marked Witherspoon’s first major foray into producing, a role that has since turned book club into a TV empire (including “Big Little Lies,” “The Morning Show,” and “Daisy Jones & The Six”). It should come as no surprise then that Strayed’s non-fiction collection, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” has undergone the television treatment, even if it appears less narratively straightforward. Similar to “Wild,” it features a searing award-worthy central performance that cuts to the core of the human experience. 
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Kathryn Hahn stars as Clare, a woman who had a promising writing career that has yet to come to fruition. She is on the verge of turning 50, her marriage is falling apart, her teenage daughter despises her, and she cannot ignore the pain from a wound that opened long ago. When an old friend presents an opportunity to write an anonymous online advice column, it offers a chance to explore the overlapping struggles—and beauty in the aches—and reignite Clare’s creative passion. 
Those viewers familiar with either “Wild” or Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column will recognize elements of the story as it unfolds but with some noticeable differences. Instead of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to piece her life back together, Clare (not Cheryl) took a different route after her mother’s death. This adaptation is a road—or trail—not traveled version that ensures this story isn’t retreading old ground. Yes, pivotal moments in Clare’s youth are similar, but the path splinters to create an alternative series of events, immediately drawing you into the tangled web.
Showrunner Liz Tieglaar is well versed in non-linear storytelling, having served as the creator of another Witherspoon-produced Hulu series (“Little Fires Everywhere”) and exploring complex family dynamics on shows like “Casual” and “Life Unexpected.” So how does one go about adapting an advice column? A combination of Clare’s recent turbulent experiences and the “Dear Sugar” letters provide the catalyst for the flashes of her past that inform her responses to those seeking advice. While the current-day scenes occur at a time of personal and professional instability, the ground looks relatively even compared to a seismic life event that turns Clare into a frayed nerve. This experience and the unfurling recollections also give her voice power. 
In this fictionalized version of Strayed’s life, Merritt Wever takes over from “Wild’s” Laura Dern (an executive producer) in the pivotal mother role. Frankie is a force of light that cuts through the darkness, whether a flashbulb memory or a more extended sequence depicting Christmas traditions between the tight-knit family of three. The absence of Clare’s father is felt in the past, and while her mother is missing from the present, Clare’s brother hangs over events like a dark cloud.
Adult Clare has taken money from her teenage daughter Rae’s (Tanzyn Crawford) college fund without consulting with her husband first; an unwanted gift is a sticking point for the adolescent version (Sarah Pidgeon is brilliant as younger Clare). Barely concealed disdain toward the garment her mom picked out isn’t the issue. Instead, what happens in the following months has left Clare raw and ready to pick a fight. Several decades later, this grief is still palpable.  
Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg sets the memory map tone that gives the impression of being inside Clare’s thoughts ping-ponging across her timeline. Some flashes are so quick it is hard to register, and these fleeting glimpses help join the dots. Some are more dreamlike or abstract than others, sometimes reflecting Clare’s inebriated or spiraling state. Her feet are firmly on the ground when Hahn’s voiceover gets to the crux of the advice she is dishing out, and it is near-impossible to finish an episode without tears in your eyes—or down your cheeks.     
Grief is a recurring theme on TV in 2023 (see also “Dear Edward” and “Shrinking”), and a cathartic cry is welcome after the collective experience of the last three years. In this case, the contents of the letters (which are taken from real Dear Sugar columns) guide the tone, but even ones filled with despair receive an answer peppered with beauty and humor. Capturing this spectrum is intrinsic to maintaining the collection’s heart, and the amount of joy reverberating through this series stops it from being overly mournful. 
Hahn’s body of work speaks for itself. She excels at portraying nuance, whether playing a nefarious next-door neighbor in “WandaVision,” a concerned sister in “The Shrink Next Door,” or multiple leading roles exploring female desire. Clare is a ball of contradictions when it comes to her husband, Danny (Quentin Plair), and Rae, and this character cannot hide her disgust, horror, or shame. Sometimes flickers of all three are expressed in quick succession, and her lack of impulse control adds complexity to an already layered figure. Some of Clare’s choices are maddening, but then she will do something that immediately puts you back on her side. 
The supporting cast is equally strong, though Pidgeon is more of a co-lead, and the depth of her hopes and sorrow reflect the immediacy of Clare’s loss. Excavating these memories isn’t a simple case of flashing back to how it played out at the time, as we also see Hahn in the past and Pidgeon in the present, making the moments more poignant. While Danny and her first husband Jesse (Johnny Berchtold) could be more fleshed out, daughter Rae is given space to move beyond the annoying adolescent archetype into vulnerability and compassion. At first, it is hard to align ourselves with teenager Rae as she seems to exist to be a thorn in her mother’s side, but her disobedience isn’t coming from a place of bratty indifference. Rae’s edges are softened as the series progresses, allowing Hahn and Crawford to dig deeper into a dynamic that swings from righteous fury to tender warmth. 
Elsewhere, Michaela Watkins plays Hahn’s best friend, Amy, and lights up the screen whenever she appears. It is a small role, but Mutsuko Erskine shines in her first part since playing her real-life daughter’s mother in “Pen15.” A conversation between Erskine’s Beverly and Clare in the second episode points to why the Dear Sugar column needs someone like Clare at its helm. 
Considering the current TV release schedule is stacked, letting something as heavy sounding as “Tiny Beautiful Things” slip through the cracks would be easy. Don’t make this mistake. While certain elements hit incredibly close to home, there is plenty to smile about amid the tears. Hahn has long offered performances to savor, and her turn as Clare is as insightful as the source material. [A-] 
“Tiny Beautiful Things” debuts on Hulu on April 7.

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