Saddled with an instantly forgettable title, A Little Help is going to need all the help it can get finding its audience, so here's my pitch: This is one of the smarter, more honest scripts to be filmed in quite some time. And Jenna Fischer, star of The Office, gives one of the smarter, more honest - and vulnerable, and tough - performances by an actress on the big screen in an even longer stretch.
The feature debut of TV writer/producer Michael J. Weithorn (who cocreated The King of Queens and nabbed some Emmys for Family Ties), A Little Help wears its television roots on its sleeve. The cinematography is straightforward, predictable, the antithesis of arty. The song overlays (by Jakob Dylan) are corny. The movie's rhythms, its pacing, its editing are blocked out as if to accommodate commercial breaks.
But when it comes to story, and to the crises experienced by Fischer's Laura Pehlke, a Long Island dental hygienist beset with marital, familial, and existential woes, A Little Help rings with emotional truth. Laura is stuck in her life: She suspects her husband (Chris O'Donnell) of having an affair, and she knows he's not an equal partner in raising their son (Daniel Yelsky). She drinks too much, has stopped caring about her appearance, and her encounters with an overbearing older sister (Brooke Smith) and overcritical mom (Leslie Ann Warren) are palpably painful. Her father (Ron Leibman), a retired sportswriter, drifts in and out of nostalgic reveries - he's detached, dithering. The family dinner-table scenes - ouch!
Set in 2002, with the trauma of 9/11 still looming large, A Little Help is spiked with humor and insight as well as anguish. The Twin Towers figure prominently, in fact, in Laura's son's efforts to make friends in his posh new private school. His fabrications about his father's role in the rescue efforts are gut-churningly desperate - and Laura's response to her son's lies is almost equally awful.
And real. And, yes, funny, too.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.