New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Wicked Little Letters’ spells out what it means to be kind

In “Wicked Little Letters,” handwriting isn’t the only script that denotes what it means to be a good mother, drunkard, neighbor or friend.
“Wicked Little Letters” directed by Thea Sharrock released in theaters on February 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics)

Chronically bad handwriting runs in my family. When my mom and I exchange holiday cards, it becomes a race to see who can decipher whose faster. But as much as we would like to blame nature or nurture, there is little correlation between one’s handwriting and genetic or personality traits. There is, however, a correlation between watching “Wicked Little Letters” and experiencing bouts of unruly laughter, heartfelt fun and a surprisingly deep meditation on what it means to be a neighbor.

Starring the unyielding forces that are Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, the vibrant and refreshing film follows the townsfolk of Littlehampton as they receive preposterously profane letters in a time before handwritten evidence was viable in court. While letter-victim number one, Edith (Colman), mounts a campaign against irreverent rebel Rose (Buckley), Edith’s so-called friends sense that Rose may actually be innocent.

It is hard to remember the last time this much defiant silliness filled cinemas nationwide. The flourish at the end of this tale is that all this riotous obscenity is based on a story that, as the film promises, “is more true than you’d think.” But walking out of the theater, laughter gives in to deep thought as one realizes that, beyond a handful of expletives, “Wicked Little Letters” has a lot more to communicate.

With a cast of comedians known for contrasting sharp and bumbling techniques, “Wicked Little Letters” teeters on the edge of witty and silly. Sometimes, the differences between the actors’ performances, like Anjana Vasan’s highly competent, sarcastic Gladys Moss and Hugh Skinner’s floundering, imbecilic Constable Papperwick  — representing the extreme ends of this cast’s stylistic scale — can clash. While conversations between devout Edith and rebellious Rose go just about as poorly as one would expect, exchanges between Gladys and her sexist superiors sometimes flounder into the realm of ridiculousness. But the contradictions within the film’s casting only serve to highlight the contradictions within us all: anyone, from the most pious Christian, the most lawful police officer or the most foul-mouthed bar-crawler, is capable of kindness, cruelty and spewing a whole lot of vitriol.

These contradictions arise again with one of the film’s most central themes; an undercurrent of generational abuse runs through picturesque Littlehampton. Edith’s father is verbally abusive, Rose fled to England to shield her daughter from her violent ex, and Officer Moss’s father instilled an environment of rampant sexism within Littlehampton’s police force that undermines her every move. But these characters are not necessarily confined to wickedness — it is how these characters respond to their trauma that brings humanity to the film.

The film does a great job at diving into relations within a community, and the best example is Rose. Criticized by her neighbors for her profane language and overall unladylike demeanor, she is popular amongst the town drunkards and virtually no other “Littlehamptonite.” But more than the ladies of Littlehampton, Rose is compassionate and inclusive. Above all, she is a caring mother. Sure, her young daughter curses almost as much as she does, but who cares if they have hearts of gold? When conservative Littlehampton must negotiate with a woman who is distinctly herself, Rose proves that the words in those letters aren’t wicked; the environment that caused them to be written is.

Inspired by the relationship between Rose and her daughter, I picked up the phone and called my mom after watching the film. Thank goodness for phone calls — without the obstacle of forensic handwriting interpretation, I was able to clearly communicate how much I appreciated the example she set for me: be your best self, no matter the hardships you have endured. I am lucky to have seen my relationship with my mother in the film’s mother-daughter relationship.

Go watch “Wicked Little Letters” with someone that taught you how to be kind. Not only will you have a wicked good time together, but you will be reminded to appreciate the people who support you even more. I’d sign off on this movie any day, no matter how illegible my signature may be.

Contact Liv Steinhardt at [email protected].

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  • K

    Kris RothApr 22, 2024 at 9:38 pm

    We saw the movie with your mom tonight and we loved the shit out of it! Your review is spot on. Well done!