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Kathryn Hahn Finds Big Emotion in Hulu's Tiny Beautiful Things

The Emmy-nominated actress is a revelation in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's essay collection.
  • Kathryn Hahn in Tiny Beautiful Things (Photo: Hulu)
    Kathryn Hahn in Tiny Beautiful Things (Photo: Hulu)

    In some ways, Tiny Beautiful Things is the perfect title for Hulu's new limited series. Based on the essay collection by Cheryl Strayed, it often feels more like a series of vignettes than an eight-episode dramedy. For long stretches, the plot becomes secondary as Clare — played by Kathryn Hahn in middle-age and Sarah Pidgeon as a young adult — moves through the past and present, reflecting on the death of her mother Frankie (Merritt Wever) and the ways in which her grief continues to reverberate throughout her life, nearly three decades later. The show's timelines aren't connected by a major anniversary or milestone: Instead, small, everyday moments, like an elderly woman refusing to wear underwear at night or the reappearance of a spurned Christmas gift, serve as a through line, reminding the viewer of the wonder that can be found in the seemingly inconsequential or mundane.

    But Tiny Beautiful Things is also a bit of a misnomer. While the title of Strayed's book suggests something tidy is contained therein, Liz Tigelaar's (Little Fires Everywhere) adaptation is anything but. The show has a wild energy, and Hahn sits at its center like a woman holding a can of gasoline and a match. In a career marked by successes, her performance is yet another high point. The Emmy-nominated actress draws on her history of embracing chaos (literally) and harnesses it into something revelatory.

    From the outset, Hahn's character presents as a woman in disarray. In the show's opening minutes, Clare, dressed in an oversized Hawaiian shirt, drunkenly sings along to Nelly's "Ride Wit Me," climbs into her home through a window, and then, with her mouth full of chicken, ruefully acknowledges the ethical problems posed by Chick-fil-A. (The way she says "The butter and the pickles... f*ck" deserves its own award.) There's a certain familiarity to her unkempt hair and spiritual messiness: Hahn has made a career out of playing women in crisis, whether she's the one wreaking havoc upon the world (WandaVision, Mrs. Fletcher, I Love Dick) or responding to external pressure (Transparent, I Know This Much Is True).

    Here, Hahn, who also serves as an executive producer, channels that tumult in both directions. There's no denying that Clare has been dealt a rough hand — her mother died when she was 22, her teenage daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford) finds fault in everything she does, and her writing career has stalled — but her bad judgment and irresponsible behavior make every situation worse. Nowhere is this clearer than in her marriage to Danny, a musician who has made his own sacrifices for their family. (Quentin Plair plays the older Danny, and Stevonté Hart is the younger version.)

    The two have been operating on cruise control for some time, but their relationship hits the skids after Clare gives her brother Lucas (Owen Painter in flashbacks and Nick Stahl in the present) $15,000 from Rae's college fund to repair their childhood home. When Danny asks her to leave the house while he nurses his resentment, Clare allows her righteous indignation to take over, and she acts out in ways that are harmful to everyone involved, Rae included.

    It's only by taking on the mantle of Sugar, an online advice columnist, that Clare begins to crawl out of the hole she's dug for herself. She is reluctant to accept the job, given the sorry state of her own affairs, but in helping others deal with their romantic and familial problems, she's finally able to examine the wounds that have been left untreated since her mother's death.

    An actor less experienced in the specific beats of emotional upheaval may find themselves overwhelmed by the demands of the character, but Hahn knows how to wrestle that whirlwind of feeling into submission and tease out something poignant. That ability is on full display when Clare pushes aside the feelings of betrayal she harbors towards her daughter — Clare named Rae after her mother, but the teen has decided to go by her middle name instead — and encourages her to go after what she wants, something Hahn's character failed to do in her own life. In Tiny Beautiful Things she does that again and again, plumbing the depths of Clare's pain to find moving truths about the paths we choose not to take ("the ghost ship that didn't carry us") and our desperate desire to be loved as we really are.

    The supporting cast delivers equally powerful performances. Pidgeon is particularly good, bringing both a vulnerability and a hardness to young Clare that Hahn is able to reflect. The actress, best known for her role in survival drama The Wilds, has clearly spent time studying her older counterpart's movements: She nails Hahn's frenzied hand motions and sidelong glances, which suggests the character’s instability and selfishness were present even before her mother’s death. This careful work allows the show to seamlessly transition from the present day to flashback scenes, which happens more frequently in later episodes, as Clare's past and present perspectives collide.

    Wever also does great work as Frankie, who's revered by her children for her kindness and strength. The Unbelievable alum's soft, lilting voice is perfect for a character who exists only as Clare chooses to remember her, not as she really was. (Lucas even calls her on this, saying, "It's not like you were some saint, and neither was mom.") But regardless of whether her selflessness was real or imagined, Frankie serves as a calming presence for both Clare and the show, and Wever takes advantage of this fact, mining every scene for real emotional depth. Consider this a warning to have tissues handy for the finale, which offers a heartbreaking look at Frankie's last days.

    It's not exactly a spoiler to say that revisiting Frankie's death is a cathartic experience for Clare, who finally lets go of the trauma she's been toting around for decades. But while her breakthrough — and the smaller ones she makes throughout the season — proves to be a triumphant moment, Hahn and Tigelaar resist the urge to turn her journey into a self-help success story. Things don't just magically work out: Clare may have found some closure, but her other problems remain, some even more urgent than before. In this way, Tiny Beautiful Things once again defies its title by denying us a neat conclusion. And yet, there's a certain comfort in knowing there are no clear answers to be found here. All we can do is take a hard look inward and hope we find the strength to take that first step forward.

    Tiny Beautiful Things premieres Friday, April 7 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Tiny Beautiful Things, Hulu, Cheryl Strayed, Kathryn Hahn, Liz Tigelaar, Merritt Wever, Quentin Plair, Sarah Pidgeon, Tanzyn Crawford