Tiny Beautiful Things Does Exactly What We Need It to Do
“Most of all, this adaptation—and the column itself—is about mothers.”
It’s been a minute since Cheryl Strayed took hold of our heartstrings and pulled, but Tiny Beautiful Things (Hulu, April 7) is here to do just that. This miniseries adaptation would have been hard-pressed to fail with Kathryn Hahn in the role of Clare (a fictionalized Cheryl Strayed), in all of her quintessential mess and poise, offering images of womanhood that are all too familiar and too infrequently depicted.
I always have this feeling watching Hahn that I’m watching my future self as she navigates the trials of life that I have yet to encounter: marriage, cheating, the death of a parent. She’s the actress of our time that finally got her due, no longer relegated to the role of best friend but given the time and capacity to portray what it is to be a real human in this world.
Tiny Beautiful Things in book form is a collection of Dear Sugar advice columns, which Strayed wrote for The Rumpus from 2010–2012. Previously adapted into a play that still performs limited runs throughout the country, this is the first screen adaptation of the wildly successful column. Groundbreaking in their vulnerability and honesty about Strayed’s own life, the pieces found a huge audience at the time. A quandary about a small lie in a relationship would lead to a larger musing about the honesty we owe our lives, while a question about a casual relationship would lead to a meditation on her mother’s death and her last word, “love.”
In fact, a lot of the questions lead back to this pivotal loss. If anyone has read Strayed, we know the general form of her life: she grew up lower class with a mother who loved her more than anything, her mother died while she was in college, and Strayed began using heroin in the wake of this life-altering grief. Strayed fans (or anyone with a pulse) also know that she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death, which helped shift her path from one of turmoil to one of healing. This version of Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things didn’t get to have the “hero’s journey” of hiking the PCT. She had a baby young, she got married, she had to just live—and understand how to live—in the hard, cold reality of life without her mother.
When the series opens, Clare is married with a child (though she’s been kicked out by her husband because she gave some of her daughter’s college fund to her wayward brother), works at a nursing facility (until she’s suspended for sleeping in the hospital beds because she’s been kicked out of her house), and is trying, sort of, to be a writer (we see her hightail it out of a bar because a woman from her old writers group walks in and asks what she’s working on). The opportunity to write Dear Sugar falls into her lap; it’s not glamorous and it’s unpaid, but it spurs something in her.
Rather than depicting the advice-seekers’ issues, the show revolves around Clare’s experience of the questions. We face them in the way she does, not witnessing them occur but imagining, hearing their voices, conjuring images. She can’t escape them, these figments of her imagination, just as she can’t escape her own memories. They are all part and parcel of the same experience: how will she tell someone else how to live when she barely knows how?
We watch as Clare formulates wisdom and advice while doing the best she can in her own life, and messing up again and again, as anyone does. It’s what made the column so triumphant, and why so many advice column writers have continued in the vein of Sugar’s openness: we want to know who the person is who’s dispensing advice and wisdom. We want to know they’ve earned it.
Most of all, this adaptation—and the column itself—is about mothers. Merritt Weaver is a sublime casting choice for the flashback scenes of Clare’s mother: a serene, capable woman with love written all over her. She’s so idealized as to seem almost unbelievable, but Weaver makes me believe it. As Strayed has written, her mother was “the love of her life.” That’s a loss that will never fade; that’s the wound of her life. The process of writing the Dear Sugar columns means Clare reaching back into her memory and sifting through it all—the hardships, the beauty, the love that enveloped her, the love she lost. More than anything, it’s a process of re-mothering: both herself, and the people she’s writing to.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a heart-stopping, grief-ridden, love-filled ode to life. Each episode contains levity, chaos, hard memories, and so much heart. I wept in nearly every one. Hahn offers edge, devastation, and hope as our narrator and advice-giver: we come away having been through it with her, having experienced the darkness as well as the light on the other side. That light is the understanding that through it all, we’re still here, still moving despite life’s blows, and still understanding that it was worth it. All of it was worth it.