Everyone tells white lies. We do it to avoid conflict, to move on from a subject, to make someone feel better — we do it without even meaning to. White lies can be so trivial that we don’t realize the immense amount of damage they can end up causing. But is telling a painful truth any better? Writer and director Nicole Holofcener chronicles these everyday conflicts with ease and wit in You Hurt My Feelings, challenging viewers to reconsider how we communicate with our loved ones.
Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a semi-successful writer with a well-received memoir who is working on publishing her next novel. She has a loving relationship with her husband Don (Tobias Menzies), who is a mediocre therapist. Having such a strong, trusting relationship, Beth’s world is catapulted into confusion and hurt when she overhears him telling a friend that he hates her new book. She had only received supportive feedback from Don after sharing draft after draft with him, so how can she go on trusting anything he says? Beth has every right to feel upset and betrayed, but Don’s perspective is also understandable. How can you tell your partner, whom you love deeply, that you don’t like their work? As their relationship begins to suffer, the two must figure out how to communicate with each other about such a difficult subject.
Adding to the complexity of Beth and Don’s situation are the supporting characters. Their aspiring writer son Eliot (Owen Teague) has felt lied to by his parents his whole life because they have always told him how exceptional he is when, really, he knows he is just average. And while Beth’s sister Sara (Michaela Watkins) and her sensitive husband Mark (Arian Moayed) are able to navigate each other’s feelings in a way that is different from Beth and Don, the relationships they have with one another have also included some sort of lie to spare the other’s feelings, whether knowingly or not. As things begin to unravel around them, everyone must come to terms with how they can better speak to one another. Subsequent misunderstandings and miscommunications take place, making for extremely cringeworthy moments, but small quips of humor create an easy comedic atmosphere that combats the embarrassment felt onscreen.
The delicate balancing act between one’s emotions and the truth is at the core of You Hurt My Feelings. Through her characters, Holofcener is able to demonstrate a complete spectrum of approaches. While Beth and Don have forgotten how to be honest with one another, for example, a sparring couple who Don is failing to help in therapy constantly throw insults at each other. This couple is open about how they feel, but they are wildly unhappy. So which is it: complete honesty or little lies? Which does the least damage?
Ultimately, it is impossible for us not to hurt the ones we love, even if we are doing it out of care. You Hurt My Feelings is an inspection of personal relationships, which can be messy and for which there is no clear rule for how to properly do things. Beth’s pain is relatable: anybody would be devastated to know that their loved one hates their work. But even when Beth and Don do decide to be more honest, they easily fall back into a routine of relaying white lies despite being more trusting of one another now.
Dreyfus remains on form as the exasperated writer, sending off quick lines of dialogue with a sharpness that only she could deliver. Holofcener’s approach is warm and empathetic, and her smart writing means the small, interpersonal dramas of each of the characters don’t play as small-stakes fare. The perfect harmony of all of the performers creates a tension that carries through the film, as we watch each character struggle internally with how their words have caused so much harm. You Hurt My Feelings plays upon real-life quandaries, resulting in a playful depiction of relationships and the things we try to do to protect them.