Those who follow the film industry may vaguely recall the name A Little Help from 2010’s Seattle Film Festival. It debuted well, and then went on to win a handful of accolades from various film festivals around the country. It has since opened in select theaters, but the majority of the country will see it this weekend when it opens around the country. I’m sure this small indie drama with the former secretary from The Office will hold its own at the box office against Harry Potter and Captain America…
A Little Help will definitely be an underdog, paddling its small indie dramedy through the massive storms that are the summer blockbusters. But sometimes when a film is good enough, strong enough, and can capture the imaginations of people around the country and the world, it will rise regardless of who you put it up against. This is not one of those films.
A Little Help is an average movie with strong performances by the cast — especially Jenna Fischer. It is entertaining and has its moments, but there is nothing that will really make it stand out against the crowd. That in no way makes it bad, in fact it is a decent film, but it won’t survive against the summer competition. They already waited a year to release this film, a few more months may have helped.
A little plot
The story of A Little Help revolves around Laura Pehlke, a 30-ish dental hygienist from New York state that is going through the motions in 2002. Her marriage is falling apart, her son Dan (Daniel Yelsky) is growing more distant and her overbearing family seems to blame her for both. She may also be on the road to alcoholism. But when her husband Bob (Chris O’Donnell) dies from a heart condition, everything changes.
Laura takes the death well. So well in fact, that her family think she doesn’t care and they begin to try to intervene in her life with moderate success. The first step is to send Dan to a new private school that her family pays for, where he doesn’t know anyone. The second step is the result of scheming from Laura’s sister Kathy (Brooke Smith). Without her knowledge, Kathy contacts a lawyer by the name of Mel Kaminsky (Kim Coates), who wants Laura to pursue a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor who treated Bob, but failed to catch the arrhythmia that led to his death. Due to mounting bills, Laura reluctantly agrees.
Meanwhile, Dan has discovered a way to make friends at his new school by telling them that his father was a firefighter that died while rescuing people during the collapse of the World Trade Center. When Laura finds out, she is furious, but eventually agrees to support the lie to avoid the fallout that her kid would face if the truth came out. At the same time, a secret from her past comes out, and her brother-in-law Paul (Rob Benedict) confesses that he has had feeling for her since they were in high school.
The death of Laura’s husband is really just the spark that begins the two real plots: the lie about Dan’s father dying during 9/11, and Paul’s feelings for Laura. The 9/11 angle is an interesting twist, because it is a lie that was despicable, but began harmlessly enough. But above all, A Little Help is about Laura. It is a story of how she deals with the death, how she handles the lie, and how she reacts to Paul. In the character-driven moments, the film works. It is the overall resolution that hurts the film, because there isn’t much of a payoff.
The film stumbles a bit at the end, and all of Laura’s problems are concluded — for good and bad — within the last 10 minutes. The climax comes and goes in the blink of an eye, and the film wraps things up in the broadest sense, but ends before the consequences can begin. It makes the journey to that point seem slightly hollow, because you don’t get to really experience what comes next, which seems odd.
The film rests on the shoulders of Jenna Fischer, and it can fairly be called a character study of Laura, which succeeds because of Fischer. That being said, the story itself, while generally entertaining, isn’t all that interesting. It is actually somewhat forgettable in itself, and the parts that people will take away are those involving Fischer — either her reactions to the issues, or the way she handles certain situations.
It isn’t fair to say that this film fails in any way, because it doesn’t, but it never really succeeds either. It is a well-made movie though, and that alone makes it entertaining to watch. But despite the original twist on the 9/11 lie, the film itself probably won’t blow you away. Some of the performances might.
Fischer is incredible at times, and carries the movie. If your only experience with her is from The Office (and assuming you like her on the show), then it is worth checking her out. Barring a sudden and surprising starring role in a major blockbuster film, Fischer probably won’t rise to the A-list in Hollywood, but she may have a long and impressive career awaiting her in the indie circuit, taking on deep and layered character-driven pieces.
The rest of the cast also does well with what they are given, but the roles are fairly typical: You have the shrewish sister who is hard to like, the “cool” husband married to the sister that everyone likes, and the blowhard dad that has words of wisdom for his daughter at exactly the right time. They all do well, but they also are characters you have seen many times before. The only other exception is Dan, who helps feed the plot with his lie, and as such is defined by that.
In a technical sense, writer-director Weithorn, who makes the jump from television, does a good job with the technical side, but stumbles a bit on the screenplay that rushes the ending. But for a first time effort, Weithorn shows a lot of promise. The film looks great visually, and he definitely has an eye for a good shot.
A Little Help is not a bad movie by any stretch, but it is not a great one either. With the competition it will face this week, that may be enough to doom this film, but for those that do venture out and are looking for something a bit more character driven, A Little Help is good choice thanks to Fischer, who puts forth an impressive performance.
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