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Cinequest Review: A Little Help

By  · Published on March 7th, 2011

A Little Help – directed by Michael J. Weithorn
Festival screening times – 3/9 @ 12pm

Laura (Jenna Fischer) is a dental hygienist who likes her daily alcoholic beverages almost as much as she dislikes the thought that her workaholic husband (Chris O’Donnell) is cheating on her with his new receptionist. Making matters worse is a family that’s far from the source of inspiration and support she needs. Her sister and mother (Brooke Smith and Lesley Ann Warren) judge with every breath and her father (Ron Leibman) prefers to look the other way and reminisce about the good old days. It’s not an ideal life, but she manages to trudge through it without help from anyone else.

And then her husband dies while on the receiving end of a particularly enjoyable sex act.

“I used to purposefully hit the ball over the fence and go ‘a little help!’”

Laura’s mother and sister wait a whole two days before sitting her down, telling her what she’s doing wrong, and advising her on how to fix it. This is at her husband’s funeral so her less than receptive reaction is understandable, but as her drinking and standoffish attitude grow she becomes less of a misunderstood and maligned woman and more of an unfit mother in need of some help. Help that no one’s offering.

Her son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) isn’t faring any better, and his first day at a new school begins as terrible as he expects until he twists the truth to garner both sympathy and “cool” points with his classmates. His dad died of arrhythmia, but Dennis tells everyone he was a firefighter who died on 9/11 after rescuing three people. (The film takes place in 2002.) It’s a big lie by a grief-stricken and confused boy, but things spiral out of control when Laura decides to go along with it rather than press the issue with her son. It’s an irresponsible act by an immature woman, and no one expects it to end well.

This is Fischer’s film as she stars in almost every scene, and she succeeds with a character who’s barely sympathetic and far from likable. Fischer walks that thin line between the two with a combination of humor and unspoken emotion visible in her eyes and lets Laura be a real person. She brings an honest humanity to a challenging role that won’t simply allow her to rely on charm and audience goodwill built up from her years on The Office.

The only one seemingly in Laura’s corner is her brother in law, Paul (Rob Benedict), and the film is at its best when the two are onscreen together. They have great chemistry and their storyline is easily the film’s strongest. Benedict is a big part of that as he brings a charismatic aching to his role as a man whose life looks fantastic from the outside but that in reality is far from what he desires.

Less successful though is nearly every other character in the film. Laura’s sister and mother are both one-note bitches and show no depth in character or performance. Her father exists solely for a few laughs, and the remaining interactions are devoid of anything interesting or engaging. Kim Coates does bring a bit of wit to his role as Laura’s lawyer, but he’s a small exception to the rule here.

While the film as a whole is less successful than Fischer’s performance there are still reasons to watch. One fantastic scene bounces beautifully between Laura giving a deposition to lawyers about her husband’s death and talking to Dennis’ class about her dead hero of a husband. It’s edited for maximum humor and highlights Fisher’s delivery and sincerity. Also of note is an ending that goes in a slightly uncertain direction and resists the urge to wrap things up neatly. Real life is inconsistent and messy, and to a lesser degree so is this film. But unlike life, the movie has Fischer to distract the eyes and the heart from caring about that too much.

The Cinequest Film Festival runs from March 1st to the 13th in San Jose, CA. Check the Cinequest site for more information and complete schedules.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.