Small Treasures, by Scott Nye
Fitting that, in a film titled A Little Help, the pleasures are chiefly the small ones. The central plot of the picture – a mother whose 12-year-old son, upon transferring schools, tells all the kids that his dad died in 9/11 (the film is set about a year afterwards; his dad actually died from a heart attack) – is a bit on the ready-made for a pitch meeting at an indie studio side of things, and the mechanics it takes to get to that point are strained. Additionally, in spite of a very good lead performance by Jenna Fischer as Laura and some fine supporting work by Rob Benedict, writer/director Michael T. Weithorn mostly casts his players in very broad, not entirely appropriate strokes.
Laura’s mother and sister in particular are pretty grating, and for those who have grown weary of the “shrew” type of female supporting character are going to cringe every moment these two are onscreen. They yell their way through conversations that would be a lot more engaging if played a little more low-key; at least some variation would be appreciated. And even though the film uses yelling to indicate drama far too often, I still really admire the way Weithorn wrote these encounters. The characters don’t make salient, cutting, well-thought-out points. They don’t even fight dirty. Their words are just petty, pathetic attempts at gaining a even a tiny bit of power in a relationship. It’s not that the film is pure hate – it can often be quite sweet and there are a few lines that land solid laughs. It just has no problem showing how cruel people can be to one another.
For once, someone has taken note of the fact that Jenna Fischer is not merely “pretty,” but is actually quite stunning, and cast her accordingly. Laura is the classic popular high school girl twenty years down the line, struggling in a failing marriage, not quite getting by on her looks anymore, and completely unable to bond with her son in a meaningful way. Typically when recognizable actresses take on these sorts of lower-middle-class characters, they’re at least redeemed as good, loving people just trying to get by. But Laura is kind of a mess. And not because the world’s come crushing down on her. She, fundamentally, as a person, is completely unfit for the role she currently holds. She fights with her son constantly, meeting him on his level instead of waiting for him to come to hers, and lacks the capacity to impart anything of any importance to him. She goes on a date with a guy she kind of loathes. She turns dental appointments (she’s a hygienist) into therapy sessions. Her husband iss cheating on her, and even though she figures this out, she still begs him to let her pleasure him. Her plight isn’t at all glamorous, there’s no “long-suffering wife” dilemma here. Just a woman who never expected to grow up.
On a formal level, made surprisingly good use of the medium shot. Weithorn comes from a background in sitcoms (he created “King of Queens”; this is his first feature), and his compositions belie his background. But in using them he lets his actors use more of their bodies to express, a freedom too often ignored in big screen dramas. Laura’s desperation in her many fights with her husband or son are so much more desperate when we see her flailing about, almost grabbing at the air for a way to make them like her.
So I admire the film on those terms. Weithorn has a long way to go before he has his mechanics worked out, but his film isn’t faking its meanness. His cruelty is purposeful, and disarmingly ugly, and weirdly refreshing. Because he’s not afraid to be relentless, the sweetness underneath shines through all the more. He guided Fischer and Benedict (who plays her brother-in-law with the natural charm of the man who has nothing more to gain, and doesn’t care what he loses) to some fine performances. It’s not a knock-you-on-your-ass kind of film, but it’s sweet enough as far as it goes.