Comedy in skillful hands is a great power and with great power should come great responsibility. One of the nobler uses of comedy power in recent years comes from the duo Jason Selvig and Davram Stiefler, also known as the Good Liars. Consider making the Good Liars your next YouTube binge and you will find the two improv geniuses infiltrating the political right – at candidate rallies, abortion clinic protests, and NRA meetings – openly disrupting some events with mock enthusiasm or turning a clever mirror towards unexamined conservative ideals. The Good Liars stand as proof that comedy, armed with freedom of speech, continues to be of benefit to the disjointed USA. It is this nobility of comedy that Joey Ally expertly harnesses to gently chide both the left and the right in her feature film debut, The Hater.
The Hater takes place in the all-too-recent and volatile political landscape of Trump’s pre-pandemic 2020. Ally stars as Dorothy, a Democratic campaign speechwriter and passionate activist who has been fired from her position due to a protest gone wrong. When Dorothy returns home in disgrace to Alabaster, Texas, she is disturbed to find her childhood bully, Brent (Ian Harding), poised to helm an easy Republican victory for state legislature and simultaneously instigate a corporate invasion that threatens vital community services. To defeat Brent, Dorothy decides to do the unthinkable and run against him in the Republican primary… as a Republican. She combats her fair share of ignorance along the way, but soon finds unexpected comradery and learns that not all of Alabaster’s citizens fit inside the boxes she created for them.
To grow, Dorothy must explore her motives for entering the race. She desperately wants the world to change but needs to wrestle with her own insecurities before she becomes a part of that change. In the timeless words of Michael Jackson, “If you wanna make the world a better place. Take a look at yourself and then make a change.” And although that famous lyric does not appear in the movie, The Hater’s diegetic soundtrack effectively guides us through Dorothy’s ethical journey with everything from angry early-2000s alt-rock to optimistic contemporary folk.
Ally helps us find laughter in the more-often depressing world of politics. She fleshes out the competing ideals of the political left and right via hilarious juxtaposition. The possibilities for laughs are endless when an avowed liberal’s major campaign platform is pro-gun. The back-to-back montage sequences of Dorothy’s style makeover and her improving campaign speeches are particularly fun. Here, Ally is assisted by the talents of tragically late and truly great editor Jennifer Lilly (Eighth Grade, Master of None). Ally proves more than up to the essential filmmaking challenge of bringing out the best in her collaborators.
The political satire is not only notable for its laughs. Ally’s command of storytelling ensures familiar beats while keeping the audience on its toes, never quite knowing what its characters will do or what results of their actions to expect. Typical activities like a Sunday brunch or a trip to the convenience store end up having movie-altering consequences. An early use of thriller-worthy fade-to-red in a moment of Dorothy’s anger and humiliation pays off in a fantastical stream-of-consciousness third-act montage as her world inevitably spins out of control.
The brilliant cast is the heart and the glue to The Hater’s masterful story. Audiences will see “that family member” reflected in the cantankerous conservative grandfather Frank, played by Bruce Dern. Also played too-real-for-comfort is Nora Dunn’s Genie, whose vicious community leader role proves that Ally’s characters are based on real interactions with the pro-Trump crowd (“Let [Trump] do his job without so much hatred coming at him” is an argument this writer heard all-too-often when the tyrant was POTUS).
Harding is repulsive as legacy politician Brent, while still adding something like vulnerability to the role. On the other side of the coin, D’Angelo Lacy adds welcome solidarity, kindness, and his own musical talents as Dorothy’s close Californian friend Glenn. Central to the movie is the relationship between Dorothy and Meredith Hagner as Greta, a kind-hearted military spouse and mother whose friendship and good intentions begin to chip away at Dorothy’s stubbornly ungenerous perspective. The cast and the story are perfected, and not carried but brought from great to excellent by the energy and versatility that Ally brings to the role of Dorothy.
If The Hater has any fault, it may only boil down to a small difference of opinion with this writer. Because Dorothy herself is “the hater,” the message of the movie is the importance of dialoguing to find common ground with individuals on the other side of the aisle. Such a moral may be enlightening for those who have always been staunchly and stubbornly entrenched in their positions and have never considered the humanity of the other side, but as a person who has spent most of his life in conservative circles, I had to view some of the turns taken in this movie as an object of fantasy.
Characters like Greta are possible, but they are exceptionally rare in communities where old-fashioned values remain strong. With the hindsight of opposition to pandemic regulations, horrific and unregulated shootings, and the recent blow to women’s rights, we can clearly see which voices are in power and how they control the masses. I wonder if satire that exposes ignorance, like that of the Good Liars, may stand a better chance of making a difference than the dialog called for by The Hater. Even so, The Hater – like the thoughtful movie it is – effectively challenges the audience (me) and asks compelling questions.
Not to be diminished and not in question are the lessons of maturity and generosity to be gained. Ally presents her semi-autobiographical tale as a timeless fable, perfected by her artistic voice, her comic sensibilities, and the sincerity of her cast. It’s a wholly impressive directorial debut, and we can look forward to whatever stories Ally has yet to share with us.
The Hater arrives on Hulu on July 16, or watch it on the app Hoopla provided by your local library.