Summer: A time for explosions, superheroes and sequels. A time for big guns, bodacious women, and thin plots. A time for mindless entertainment that suffuses spectacle with simpliﬁcation in hopes of raking in money. Itʼs a perfect time to turn our brains off. However, for the small group of us that like to be challenged and enthralled at the cinema, the indie ﬁlm market still ﬁnds its niche amongst the boutique movie theaters.
Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of viewing A Little Help, Michael Weithorn‘s debut ﬁlm. Itʼs a ﬁlm made on an obvious small scale, but it imparts a message with the grandest intentions. The dramedy doesnʼt always work, and its payoff didnʼt quite have the bite it so eagerly sought, but it’s nonetheless a bittersweet reprieve from the sensory onslaught of the “Summer Movie” pack.
The ﬁlm stars Jenna Fischer as Laura, a dental hygienist whoʼs always had her way due to her innate charm and good looks. However, her bubbly facade hides a deeply embedded sadness. Her emotionally distant husband Bob (Chris OʼDonnell, who is sorely underused) no longer eyes her with desire, instead complaining about her “ﬁgure” and“incessant drinking.”
Bobʼs unfulﬁlled obligation to their 13 year old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) further compounds their matrimony. When Bob dies suddenly due to arrhythmia near the onset of the ﬁlm, Laura is left alone with Dennis in the emotional aftermath of a post-9/11 nation.
Lauraʼs sister Kathy (Brooke Smith) and mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) start hounding her at the funeral as to her intentions for the future. Where is the money going to come from, will you have enough time for Dennis, and the like. Dad sits idly by as Kathy and mom lay it on Laura, calling her an “immature child” incapable of leading a real life. Laura sits by stoically, in a manner reminiscent of post-traumatic shock, with only a minor retort. Sheʼs tired, sad, and absolutely in denial of what has transpired. Itʼs an interesting, true to life allegory for the events that occurred on September 11th.
When Dennis must change schools, he lies to his new classmates by telling them that his father died in the towers. This outrages Laura at ﬁrst, but through a tender scene, she realizes that her son is wallowing in the same desperation as she is. She concedes to his claims and corroborates his stories for the moms and teachers at fellow PTA meetings, to both dramatic and comedic effect.
Laura also ﬁnds herself spending more time at her sister Kathyʼs house. Itʼs here that she discovers Kathyʼs husband Paul (played aptly by Rob Benedict) has been lying to his wife not only about his approval of their sonʼs “Rockstar” aspirations but also his real reason for marrying Kathy. Turns out he only married her to get closer to his high-school crush, Laura. These elements are status quo for the indie market, but they are handled with a deft lightness that never detract from their inherent depth. In other words, it paints a very clear picture without a heavy hand.
The last element to the ﬁlm, and the one I enjoyed the most, is Lauraʼs involvement with litigator Mel Kaminsky (a brilliant turn by the reliable Kim Coates). Laura, after being coerced by her aggressive sister, ﬁles a medical malpractice lawsuit. She plays her part: she signs her name at the bottom of the legal document, shows up to court, and speaks when spoken to. Yet, like a pawn on a chessboard, she is merely playing the part dictated by some higher power. It really drives home the fact that Laura has never gathered her footing. Itʼs why she drinks and smokes and screams at the noisy dog next door. She doesnʼt know what to do, and never has. Her charming personality just isnʼt enough to get by anymore.
Some of these elements come clashing together in the emotional ﬁnale, and others are abandoned altogether. The problem is, unlike the best ﬁlms to which we can most easily associate, I was never fully invested in Lauraʼs plight. Fischer gives an excellent performance (as does the rest of the cast) well in line with how a similar situation would play out in real life. I will also give writer/director Michael Weithorn credit where it’s due as he crafted a meticulous, realistic story, just one that isnʼt as compelling as it should be.
A Little Help is a ﬁlm worth recommending to a very select crowd. The ﬁlm is the kind of funny that will make you laugh to yourself while adding the kind of drama that forces you to think without ever watering the eyes. It’s a great story that unfortunately only makes for a good ﬁlm. While it’s worth seeing, I donʼt see myself remembering it come fall.