Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Long Island Angst: A Little Help

Laura Pehlke never really grew up, but now she is a widowed mother. Her husband died of a freak heart attack, but her son pretends to be a September 11th survivor. It all has a very TV movie vibe, but it has been produced as an indie feature. At least, writer-director Michael J. Weithorn does not let anyone wriggle off the hook too easily in his Long Island-set A Little Help (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Pehlke and her husband Bob were going through a rough patch that only got worse when he died. Since an emergency room doctor (played by celebrated Wittenberg University alumnus James Rebhorn) seemingly misinterpreted his symptoms, Pehlke’s domineering older sister, Kathy Helms, insists she file a malpractice suit. She even has the right ambulance chaser lined up. However, Pehlke has a nagging feeling her late husband lied to the attending (about whether he was engaged in strenuous activity) to conceal an affair.

Meanwhile, her relations with son Dennis have deteriorated to next to nothing. Initially unhappy in his new school, he suddenly enjoys the attention of his teachers and peers when he claims his father was murdered at the World Trade Center. Though she has a bad feeling about it, Pehlke plays along, even assuming the role of 9-11 widow. Frankly, she is more preoccupied fighting with her caustic sister and disapproving parents.

There is definitely something to the basic premise of Help. The notion of sympathy envy and attention-seeking behavior, in the context of September 11th or any tragedy, holds a great deal of dramatic potential. The rather cynical depiction of truth-be-damned malpractice litigation is also surprisingly on-target and Kim “Sons of Anarchy” Coates is appropriately serpentine as thirty-three-percenter Mel Kaminsky. However, the draggy pacing and whiny characters constantly undercut the film.

This is definitely a small box affair from Weithorn, best known as a writer for Family Ties and the executive-producer of The King of Queens. Frankly, Rebhorn probably has the most big screen credits, but he appears rather fleetingly. As Pehlke, Jenna “The Office” Fischer shows laudable commitment and range, but the constant tantrums and panic attacks she must realize quickly get repetitive. Unfortunately, Brooke “Grey’s Anatomy” Smith’s sister Kathy is shrewish beyond credibility, while Rob “Felicity” Benedict is simply cringe-inducing as the torch-carrying brother-in-law. However, Dion “Runaround Sue” DiMucci is still totally cool, appearing as himself on a radio call-in show.

Help is not terrible, but it has a whole lot of the angst and faux empowerment that give indie films a bad name. To its credit, it also has an edge, but it could have used considerably more. Something of a lost opportunity, Help opens this Friday (7/22) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.