Kathryn Hahn Will Make You Laugh and Cry

Mar 31, 2023

“I am always three things,” our protagonist, Clare (Kathryn Hahn), says toward the end of Episode 2 of Hulu’s Tiny Beautiful Things. “I am my mother’s daughter. I am my daughter’s mother. And I am an accomplished writer — even if I haven’t accomplished it yet.” These lines serve as a thesis statement of sorts to the dramedy that introduces us to Clare at a time when her family, writing career, and life, in general, are, to put it frankly, in shambles.

Lady Bird captured the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship back in 2017 with an authenticity I hadn’t seen before, and Everything Everywhere All at Once did it again last year. I’m pleased to report that Tiny Beautiful Things joins the ranks of these greats — and manages to do it twofold, focusing on Clare’s relationship with her daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford) in the present day, as well as exploring her relationship with her own mother through flashbacks. These flashbacks, which always feel seamlessly woven in, serve as important touchstones for telling us why Clare started writing — and why she eventually stopped.
Ironically, what gets her to pick up the pen again (or fire up the laptop, technically) is taking over an advice column called Dear Sugar, where people write in with questions about relationship problems, trauma, and everything in between. Though Clare may be a mess (the first scene of the pilot where she sings along to Nelly’s “Ride wit Me” while sloppy drunk — in a Hawaiian shirt, no less — is enough to establish all is not well), she’s an expert on the complications of love and loss, having experienced both firsthand. Despite her reluctance to take over the column at first, Clare proves to be a natural, and by helping her readers heal, she begins to as well.

Image via Hulu

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Just as Clare is a perfect fit for the Dear Sugar column, Hahn is the perfect fit to embody her — though to anyone familiar with her work, that’s probably a less surprising revelation. Hahn has always had the rare ability to effortlessly oscillate between comedy and drama and bring a striking amount of nuance and empathy to her characters no matter what or how big the role. (Thankfully, in recent years, those roles have gotten bigger and bigger, affording her the leading lady status she’s always deserved.) With projects like Mrs. Fletcher, Private Life, and Afternoon Delight under her belt, she’s not unfamiliar with playing flawed, multidimensional women in the midst of an identity crisis — this role is firmly in her wheelhouse.

But make no mistake: This is still very much a singular performance. Hahn is always phenomenal, but she’s never been better in what may very well be her most challenging role to date. It requires her to be funnier, deeper, and more layered than ever — to comfort an Alzheimer’s patient in a highly touching scene one moment before turning around and gaslighting her in a shockingly selfish move the next — and not only does she rise to the challenge, but she makes it look easy. In a way, it feels like every project that’s come before has been leading up to this role, allowing her to combine and showcase her wide range of skills within the same character.

And Hahn isn’t the only standout. Sarah Pidgeon has the daunting job of playing Clare throughout her teens and twenties when many of the events that fundamentally shaped her occurred: namely, her mother’s illness. It’s almost eerie how well her and Hahn’s portrayals line up, down to their facial expressions and mannerisms. Pidgeon fearlessly captures that same tricky yet crucial combination of fierce stubbornness and soul-baring vulnerability. It’s easy to see the throughline between them — the ripple effect. Pidgeon’s star has been steadily on the rise since The Wilds, and I’d be shocked if this doesn’t (rightfully) catapult her career to the next level.

Image via Hulu

It should be noted, however, that Pidgeon doesn’t act alone. A good majority of her scenes are shared with Merritt Wever — another criminally underrated talent — who plays her mother, Frankie. There are a lot of things in this show that will make you cry, but Wever is likely to be the main culprit. By the end of the series, I’d developed something of a Pavlovian response where the waterworks would start whenever she so much as appeared onscreen. In many ways, Frankie is the opposite of Clare, possessing a quiet calmness that both complements and bumps against Clare’s louder, more wild ways. There’s a version of this story where Frankie is a bland, one-dimensional saint, but thankfully, this is far from it. Wever infuses Frankie with a playful charm and easy wit, with her serenity being the source of her strength. It’s obvious where Clare gets her passion, humor, and intelligence from and clear how much the two love each other. Pidgeon and Wever are an absolute delight, with their dynamic rooting the show.

As I mentioned, the show made me weep pretty much every episode, but I never felt as if it was trying to induce tears. There’s a refreshing lack of emotional manipulation going on. Instead, the writing feels honest, and there’s a bite and edge that balances out the sentimentality, undercutting any moments that feel like they could veer into territory that’s either too melodramatic or saccharine. The structure of the show is deceptively simple, but it’s really quite a feat what Liz Tigelaar and her team of writers have managed to accomplish. Not only are they tasked with fusing two timelines together, but there’s an added third layer to everything when the Dear Sugar letters (pulled from Cheryl Strayed’s book) come into play. It’d be easy for at least one of these elements to feel forced, but Tigelaar does a masterful job thematically aligning all the moving parts, making for a cohesive viewing experience throughout each of its eight 30-minute episodes.

The half-hour episodes make for tight pacing, and my only real complaint is that sometimes it can feel a little too tight. Tigelaar utilizes the real estate she does have wisely — especially considering this is, at the end of the day, Clare’s story and journey — but one can’t help but want to spend more time with the other people in her life: namely, her daughter Rae and husband Danny (Quentin Plair). There’s an episode toward the end of the season where we get to spend a significant amount of time with Rae without Clare present, and it does wonders for fleshing out her character, taking her beyond the “rebellious teen” trope. I only wish we could have gotten more of those scenes earlier, as well as some solo time with Danny.

Image via Hulu

We see a fair amount of Clare’s relationship with her brother Lucas (Owen Painter) during her earlier years — their siblinghood one of my favorite aspects of the show — and though his presence certainly looms and is key to the plot in the present day, I felt his physical absence for most of the season. I found myself wishing to see more of him as an adult before the grand finale of sorts. The focus on Clare’s re-blossoming writing career — though well-integrated into the story — also takes a backseat to the familial drama at times, and it would have been nice to dive more deeply into what this column could mean for her on a professional level in addition to the effect it has on her emotionally.

Still, it’s a rare qualm to have these days when so many streaming series feel bloated and overlong and perhaps more a testament to how intriguing each character is that I was always left craving more of them. I’d happily watch spinoffs focusing on Clare’s friend Amy (the always excellent Michaela Watkins) and her bar, sassy Gen Z retirement community coworker Shan (Elizabeth Hinkler), or Rae’s friend Montana’s (Aneasa Yacoub) rise to TikTok stardom.

“When a gift is given,” Clare says at the end of the pilot after reflecting on the last present her mother ever gave her — a puffy yellow coat she didn’t want at the time, “say thank you.” This series feels like a gift — one of hope, one that shows that you’re never alone, and one that promises it’s never too late to go after your dreams — to anyone who’s struggling to figure themselves out. Much like Strayed’s gorgeous source material, Hulu’s Tiny Beautiful Things uses specificity to offer commentary on universal experiences and has the unique ability to strip the most complex topics down into their simplest, most resonant parts. And so for that, I have to say: Thank you.

Rating: A-

All episodes of Tiny Beautiful Things will be available to stream on Hulu April 7.

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