Tiny Beautiful Things has all the makings of a tearjerker but falls short
The new Disney Plus series stars Kathryn Hahn as slightly chaotic advice columnist Clare, but the heartfelt series lacks direction.
From the offset, Tiny Beautiful Things aims to be the kind of tender, moving and mildly funny drama that wants you to reflect and look inwards at your own interpersonal relationships.
It essentially nudges you to shed a tear as we explore Clare's (Kathryn Hahn) life as a mother-turned-advice-columnist, and bear witness to her shortcomings, failures and flashbacks to her own tumultuous relationship with her mother Frankie. And you want to, you really do.
Tiny Beautiful Things has all the makings of a heartfelt tearjerker and definitely tugs at the heartstrings. As a series, its intentions are clear. But unfortunately, as is often the case of dramas that try a little bit too hard in this manner, it falls short at being able to pull it off.
Adapted by Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine productions from the bestselling book by Cheryl Strayed (Wild), the series follow's Hahn's character as she navigates her own crumbling relationship with husband Danny, her daughter Rue and her new-found calling as an advice columnist. The original book is a collection of advice columns from Strayed's own past as 'Dear Sugar', the anonymous columnist that Clare becomes in the series.
When presented with the opportunity to take over the column from a friend, Clare couldn't be more confused and dismissive but soon takes to writing lengthy responses to strangers and in doing so, manages to glean advice from her own shortcomings.
We follow her as she thinks fondly of her mother, what she learnt from her (hindsight is a beautiful thing) and what she wishes she could've told her before she passed away. Her memories of her are so vivid that the line between past and present is often blurred throughout the eight episodes, flitting from flashbacks to Clare as a mouthy 22-year-old to now, as a chaotic mother that seems to always be running around.
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Hahn delivers a punchy, energetic performance as Clare but as much as I do profess to enjoying an unlikeable character with questionable life decisions, Clare falls in an awkward in-between space. You want her to do better but you leave each episode also increasingly confused over her actions and whether it's all a case of 'too little too late'.
Clare is caught in a never-ending cycle of unresolved trauma and while it's certainly reflective of many people's reality, you can't help but wonder what came before. She's repeatedly told and forced to confront the prospect of a 'mid-life crisis' that she could be experiencing. Although her mother died when she was in college, it seems as though the dissolution of her marriage – brought about by her giving her daughter's college fund to her brother – is the catalyst for some serious introspection about her mother Frankie.
In tone and feel, Tiny Beautiful Things is largely tender in the way it deals with themes of grief, love, sex and mother-daughter relationships. It presents Clare as the daughter who arguably took her own mother for granted and now wishes she could've changed that, but also as the mother who wishes her own daughter could treat her a lot better and wouldn't push her away. You know what they say about the apple and the tree, after all.
In those moments, the series feels very much strives to be like This Is Us or even recent box office hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. But where it falls short from these other two effortless tearjerkers is the fact that you don't ever really know what journey you're going on in Tiny Beautiful Things.
As Clare answers these agony aunt questions from strangers all over, she pieces together memories of her own past – as a drug addict, young mother and failed writer – and turns inwards to help others. Even so, her character arc is almost undetectable and you can't help feeling that the series, as thoughtful and warm as it may set out to be, lacks an end goal.
What it does show us is that grief is far from a linear process and can continue to affect people at any stage in their life, triggered by who knows what. But here, in Tiny Beautiful Things, we also see that grief can make you do some wild things and turn to certain vices in order to cope, no matter how destructive they may be.
As the series progresses, the dilemmas Dear Sugar is emailed about offer a format for the episodes, allowing us to see exactly how these issues are impacting Clare and how they allow her to deal with some of her own skeletons. Looking back, in this case, allows Clare to remember who she is and who she wants to be.
You're supposed to leave the series reflecting on the 'tiny beautiful things' in your own life, the very things that Clare thought she was incapable of cherishing and now strives to. But instead, you can't help leaving each episode wondering what direction you were taken in, whether more or less humour would've changed the series takeaways and wishing it was all a little more confronting and emotionally honest.
If you're looking for a stand-out series that'll deliver hard-hitting truths about family, loss and life, Tiny Beautiful Things may not be the pick for you, even though it sets out to be just that. But what is guaranteed are multiple laughs, the kind of awkward onscreen moments that leave you squirming and a stellar performance from Hahn.
Tiny Beautiful Things premieres on Disney Plus on Friday 7th April. Sign up to Disney Plus now for £79.90 for a year or £7.99 a month.