When asked about a darkly humorous subplot in “A Little Help” involving 9/11 at last year’s Seattle Film Festival, writer/director Michael J. Weithorn, “It was not a period piece when I first wrote it.” Nearly a decade later, the comedy will see a theatrical release and the greatest compliment I can pay it is that it’s a film that’s aged well in my mind since I saw it a year ago.
As I mentioned in my immediate reaction then, it wasn’t only Weithorn who had his patience tested in getting the film onscreen:
During the post-screening Q & A for her new dramedy "A Little Help," Jenna Fischer noted that there aren't many scripts floating around "about women and not about a woman falling in love."
Unlike Katherine Heigl, who Fischer went on to single out as "making a career out of that," it's taken somewhat longer for "The Office" star to transition to leading lady status on the big screen after making the most of supporting parts in smart, small-scale flicks like "The Promotion" and "Solitary Man." That wait hasn't been unrewarded.
In "A Little Help," Fischer stars as Laura, a dental hygienist whose life only really starts when her husband (Chris O'Donnell) suffers a fatal form of arrhythmia and she's left to rethink what's she's doing with her life. Far from the tempered ambition of Pam Beesley, Laura was never a go-getter and only casually strolled into adulthood by becoming a mother. (Laura's parental instinct consists largely of trying to befriend her now 11-year-old son, with whom her most emotional exchanges come in the form of instant messages on her computer screen.)
While she isn't fazed at all by her husband's death — he may have been cheating on her before clutching his chest in agony — she is faced with several moral and practical dilemmas in his wake. Should she sue for medical malpractice, as her sister (Brooke Smith) insists?
Is it right for her to go along with her son's lie that his father was a fireman who died in 9/11 to fit in at his new private school? Will she finally notice her brother-in-law (Rob Benedict) has pined for her since trying to get her attention in high school and still carries a torch despite marrying her sister?
If it sounds like Laura isn't the only one overwhelmed by the choices presented to her in "King of Queens" creator Michael J. Weithorn's directorial debut, "A Little Help" might not be your cup of tea. It did remind me of another recent film I greatly admired, "World's Greatest Dad," which embraced some melodramatic tropes to arrive at something genuine.
A few of "A Little Help"'s characters are broadly drawn and certain scenes, especially the film's set-up, seem forced, but Weithorn isn't interested in easy answers for Laura's many problems. He has a willing and able actress in Fischer to plumb the depths of a quarterlife panic in a delicate performance that doesn't beg for your sympathy, but demands your attention. (In a funny but apt explanation of her character development, Fischer told the audience she studies reality TV for character traits and was inspired by "Survivor: Micronesia" winner Parvati Shallow when her sexy "whatever, whatevers" wear off.)
Of course, Weithorn's good for a steady stream of sharp one-liners (one involving the musical legacy of Dion, who shows up in a cameo, is still ringing in my ears), yet "A Little Help" cuts to the quick in ways that are less expected and ultimately more moving.
A year later, the Dion joke still makes me crack a smile every time I think about it, which leads to thinking about how "A Little Help" as a whole gave me the warm and fuzzies. Upon reflection, it also should be noted that Rob Benedict stands out as Laura's brother-in-law Paul, a role that appears at first to be a transparent plot device to speed up Laura's emotional arc, but results in a character that's actually worthy of both Laura and the audience's affection.
"A Little Help" opens in limited release on July 22nd. A complete list of theaters can be found here.
Did you see the film? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.