A Little Help
Directed by Michael Weithorn
As Pam Beasley on TV's The Office, Jenna Fischer has mastered the art of low-key sweetness; she plays a girl-next-door type with specificity and subtlety, and without any of the popular rom-com heroine shortcuts to faux-relatability (no falling down, no Aniston-style self-pity). In A Little Help, she's equally low-key and surprisingly at home with a kind of restless sourness. Fischer's Laura Pehlke, a dental hygienist on Long Island, is often seen peeling out in her red Volkswagon and sneaking extra beers at family gatherings, or sometimes just during the afternoon.
It's a nice bit of characterization; writer-director Michael Weithorn adeptly illustrates the many tiny lies that Laura accumulates until they seem to compose her entire life, feeding her defensiveness and irritability. When Laura's husband Bob (Chris O'Donnell) drops dead unexpectedly, the deceptions get bigger: her twelve-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) starts at a new school and tells everyone that his father died in 9/11 (the movie is set in 2002), while Laura's family encourages her to sue a doctor for malpractice.
Given that this is the dark-comic story of a likable regular lady behaving not very well, A Little Help can't help but feel like Jenna Fischer's version of The Good Girl, the Miguel Arteta/Mike White comedy that helped Jennifer Aniston out of her (extremely well-paying) sitcom doldrums. At times, A Little Help resembles a TV-vacation excursion, with an ensemble full of underappreciated television support like Rob Benedict (perhaps the sixth or seventh most recognizable member of the Felicity cast; quite good here, and there too) given substantial roles.
Weithorn is a TV vet too —he co-created The King of Queens —and while he dots his movie with theatrical touches, like the patient-POV shots that allow Fischer to deliver stagy mini-monologues to the camera, his roots show in unexpected places. For example: Dion, of "Runaround Sue" fame, makes a brief and bizarre appearance, like a sitcom guest star in the 80s, dropped into a subplot that goes nowhere. Weithorn's ear for familial tension isn't bad —that early barbecue scene is a little studied and melodramatic, but brings the domestic squabbling to a funny-sad boil. But he often pushes too far, beyond his abilities as a writer; when Laura's disapproving and insensitive mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and sister (Brooke Smith, indiewood's favorite unsmiling best friend or confidant) team up against Laura, it's really the filmmakers offering tone-deaf interpretations of what tone-deaf reactions to tragedy sound like.
Despite frequent missteps, A Little Help shows promise throughout: it has any number of scenes that could be repurposed into striking, incisive short stories. Put together, though, it's a mess, notable primarily for the ease with which Fischer adapts to that messiness.
Opens July 22