In You Hurt My Feelings, director Steve Collins crafts a kind of anti-romance from a trio of emotional catatonics failing to connect with one another. Only the subtlest twitches on their deadpan faces hint at the emotions they're unable to express. These feelings of repression are then poetically juxtaposed with the seasons changing in a small New England town, where sheets of ice gliding down a glassy river, Easter eggs covered in bright green grass, and rain-drenched country roads provide a lyrical framework for the characters' stunted modes of communicating. The result is a fluid and ultimately beguiling indie character study brimming with revelatory moments, but lacking in emotional heft.
The rot of prolonged emotional stasis is immediately felt in the opening sequence, where John (John Merriman), a bearded lug who could easily stand in for Zach Galifianakis, fruitlessly juggles the care of two young children and a dog. As John stares aimlessly at the ceiling, allowing a babbling toddler to climb onto his chest, we assume he's a father mired in a rut. Collins's consistent use of close-ups further establishes a palpable sense of intimacy between the characters. But when the children's mother shows up and pays John for his services, the rug is pulled out from under the audience's feet. Moments later, the film infers that John has been trying to leverage this newfound profession as a nanny and responsibility to impress his permanently pissed ex-girlfriend, Courtney (Courtney Davis). By subverting our initial expectations about John as a character, You Hurt My Feelings initiates a trend of narrative surprise, where surface representations regarding family, adulthood, and friendship become untrustworthy.
John's strange friendship with Courtney's current boyfriend, Macon (Macon Blair), a volatile man-child who likes to get drunk and roughhouse, further confounds the emotional dynamic between the three main characters. Their unsettling awkwardness comes to a head when John and Macon get drunk, pass out, and wake up to find Courtney standing over them. Collins then cuts to all three cramped together on the couch having breakfast, a hilariously abrupt transition that finds Macon gleefully naïve to the odd situation he helped create. The improvisational-style dialogue only pushes You Hurt My Feelings further toward a state of permanent ambiguity. In some of the more abstract dialogue-driven set pieces, supporting characters are left out of the frame entirely, their personas relegated to a purgatory-like off-screen space.
While much of You Hurt My Feels is loosely formed by whatever glimmers of feeling Collins allows his characters to emote, there's a calculated shape to this film, a meticulous rendering of protracted melancholy explored through deliberate motifs. Whether it's one of the two men's hilariously pathetic attempts to win back Courtney by giving her flowers, or John's natural instinct to care for Macon when he drinks too much, these threads perforate the gloom and doom of the narrative. The collective malaise does fade away when John, Courtney, and Macon experience an irreverent play date with the two young children from the film's first sequence, all of the characters splashing in the shallows of an expansive river. In this fleeting moment, Collins's tortured souls find some semblance of joy together.
For a film that often veers into potentially absurd territory, You Hurt My Feelings shows a great deal of sensitivity toward its sad-sack characters. The final shot-reverse-shot between John and Courtney, confronting each other yet again after a traumatic shift in their respective lives, is a perfect example of the film's deceptive tenderness. Here, the pain of the past and hope for the future rest side by side, and like many of the best moments in You Hurt My Feelings, the characters' subtly expressive faces do all the talking.