Tiny Beautiful Things Review: Kathryn Hahn Leads A Gorgeously-Written Take On Grief, Art, And Family

We've all seen stories where fictional art falls short: films where supposedly world-famous pop stars actually sound just okay, or TV shows where fictional acclaimed poets aren't nearly as talented as they're clearly meant to be. It's a tricky business to write art within art, and more often than not, the end results fall short. Hulu's new series "Tiny Beautiful Things," based on an essay collection by Cheryl Strayed, doesn't have that problem. Rather, the show about a woman who takes on a self-help column writing gig despite the fact that her own life is falling apart features some of the most beautiful, aching, soulful writing I've ever heard, delivered with assured emotion by star Kathryn Hahn.

Hahn delivers a powerful performance here, one that feels as if it continues a conversation started by her dynamic, sexually and emotionally complex turn in the underrated series "Mrs. Fletcher." The two shows aren't related, but like "Mrs. Fletcher," "Tiny Beautiful Things" can be described as a coming-of-age show for a woman who long since technically grew up. Here, the actress plays Clare, a mother, wife, and lapsed writer who's prone to making intense, life-exploding choices that all relate back to her grief over her own mother's death. In flashback, Clare is played with intriguing thorniness by Sarah Pidgeon, while the always-great Merritt Wever takes on the role of her tranquil, endlessly warm mother.

A self-help column inspires reflection

By the time we meet Clare, she has a rocky past that includes addiction, trauma, and infidelity (the story draws from essays about Strayed's life, but also fictionalizes some elements), plus a mountain of unresolved and seemingly insurmountable grief. "Tiny Beautiful Things" is good at a lot of things thanks in large part to the deeply moving writing at its core, but it's especially good at presenting grief in a way that's much less tidy than many other stories about loss. Here, Clare's grief doesn't have a half-life, but thrums like a current beneath every interaction she has with her own daughter (Tanzyn Crawford) and husband (Quentin Plair). It also ripples through Crawford's Rae, a teenager who can't help but feel the aftershocks reverberating off of her mother.

With a self-help column as its framing device, "Tiny Beautiful Things" sounds like a recipe for the saccharine (even the title here calls to mind the network tearjerker "A Million Little Things"), but in practice, it's anything but. Strayed's anonymous "Dear Sugar" column, which was published via The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012, was raw and often stingingly honest — not about its readers, but about the imperfections of the writer herself. "Tiny Beautiful Things" captures the spirit of the column well, often in concluding remarks that will inspire more than a few goosebumps and tears. This is the kind of show that it's impossible to watch without wanting to call a loved one the second the credits roll, just to hear their voice.

Great performances ground a painful, beautiful story

"Tiny Beautiful Things" builds a foundation on fantastic performances, particularly by Hahn (who is darkly funny) and Wever. As Clare's mother Frankie, Wever taps into a purely nurturing performance, the sort of motherly calm that a kid can't help but understand or appreciate. Her placid exterior contrasts well with Hahn and Crawford's performances as two versions of the same woman, both furious and hurting and compelled to use sex, substances, and chaos to cope. I'm reminded of the Florence Welch line from her song "South London Forever," in which she sings: "everything I ever did/was just another way to scream your name." Clare's story is fundamentally a series of screams for her lost mother, rendered with all the beauty and pain they deserve.

The series delivers its drama and dark humor with a rather creative blend of past, present, and imagined that makes for some memorable visuals. "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" filmmaker Desiree Akhavan directs four of the eight episodes, and she and fellow directors Stacie Passon and Rachel Goldenberg opt to bring the Dear Sugar columns to life in unexpected ways. People seeking advice sometimes appear on screen, like ghosts that haunt Clare's inbox, while memories of her mother, brother (Owen Painter), and her younger self invade her space as well. Hahn's performance complements these elements, as she responds to the imagined specters with acute longing or frantic dismissal depending on the day.

Dear Sugar has the wisdom we need

As much as "Tiny Beautiful Things" is about motherhood, marriage, and memory, it's also about the act of working it all out on the page. Clare's journey isn't straightforward — indeed, she often seems to have no clue where she wants her life to go next — but it gains some order when she's able to funnel it all through the Dear Sugar column. For a show about writing, "Tiny Beautiful Things" is impressively unpretentious, worried not about material success so much as writing as an act that's capable of binding up wounds for reader and writer alike. 

That's just one more refreshing take from this well-acted, gorgeously written show that never seems to run out of surprisingly powerful wisdom. 

"Tiny Beautiful Things" premieres on Hulu on April 7, 2023.