May 2, 2013
Helen – US, 2009
I suppose I’m predisposed to like films such as Sandra Nettelbeck’s uneven 2009 effort, Helen, insomuch as I genuinely enjoy films that are more character-driven than plot-driven. Films like these are often about fascinating, true-to-life characters who we watch attempt to maneuver their way through life without inflicting harm to those around them or being harmed themselves. In most instances, they are simply looking for those basic of things – love, happiness, family. And like real life, some days are easy, wile others are simply unbearable. In the film’s opening credits, we see home movies of a couple’s early days at the beach. Smiles extend over each of their faces, and we get the sense that they have found what they are looking for. However, their bliss turns out to be fleeting and transitory.
At a surprise party towards the beginning of the film, Helen Leonard (Ashley Judd), a professor of musical theory at a local university, is given a piano. As one would expect, she then obliges her guest with a piece of classical music. She is clearly out of practice, a fact that would normally just cause a slight degree of embarrassment. However, if you look closely, you can clearly see that each incorrect note is like a dagger piercing her skin. Later, after the guests have all gone home and her husband and her daughter are fast asleep, she returns to the piano, unable to rest until she gets the piece right. It is the first hint that something is not right. Other hints soon follow – insomnia, obsessive compulsive tendencies, sudden and controllable eruptions of tears. Eventually they become debilitating.
Other than Helen, the only other truly significant character in the film is Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith), a young student in one of Helen’s classes. After an awkward introduction which for some time seemed entirely too coincidental to be believed, I began to see Mathilda as exactly the right person at the right time. Like Helen, she too is wrestling with some pretty terrifying demons, and when they manifest out of nowhere, it is as if her entire body is under attack. It is in these moments that she is capable to doing great physical harm to herself in an effort to make the discomfort stop. At a hospital, the two of them share a room, and they begin to form a surprisingly strong bond. When her husband asks Helen what makes Mathilda so special, Helen replies, “She doesn’t ask how I feel. She knows.” This is important because unlike Helen’s husband, David, Mathilda doesn’t harbor any deep-seated hope that Helen will miraculously return to normal through such time-honored traditions as relaxing at home, taking medication, and traveling to supposed stress-free locals. There’s even a scene in which the two ladies create a list of the least-helpful advice they get from people who have no idea what they are talking about. Their list includes all of the suggestions above and a few more that I hadn’t expected.
The esteem I felt for these two characters only made my disappointment in the other one’s in the film more palpable, for other than Helen and Mathilda, characters like David and Helen’s daughter Julie come across as nothing more than cardboard cutouts. The doctors Helen encounters all go about their jobs as if they are numb to the pain of their patients. As for Julie, we get long shots of her hearing about or witnessing her mother’s problems and reacting to them by breaking into tears or running away. These scenes are somewhat believable, yet there should be more to them. There should be conversations or at the very least failed attempts at conversation. Instead, the film just moves on to the next dramatic event, giving the impression that these characters are doing nothing to try to prevent the complete collapse of their happy home. David gets to experience whatever emotion will produce the most drama regardless of whether it is realistic or not, and more often than not, the emotion he conveys is frustration and anger. I would expect someone going through an experience like this to be more pro-active - to read more, talk to specialists, and hire around-the-clock care. Instead he leaves her alone at home for long stretches of time and then gets angry when she doesn’t get better on her own. I imagine that these emotions are real enough, yet watching a parade of scenes in which the same character makes mistake after mistake proves tiring, and I found myself somewhat wishing that he and his wife would not get back together.
Suffice to say, the film is strongest when it focuses on Helen and Mathilda, and their scenes together are incredibly moving. As Helen, Ashley Judd gives a powerful performance that will remind viewers just how good of an actress she is, and Lauren Lee Smith gives an equally impressive performance as Mathilda. Their hard work is unfortunately nearly undone by the film’s paint-by-numbers approach to drama and its overuse of melodrama to move the story forward. I also have to wonder what Sandra Nettelback is trying to say by wrapping up Helen’s problems in the way that she does. The film is therefore a mixed bag containing two great performances, an interesting set-up, and extremely clunky execution. Still, I recommend the film. I cared for these characters, and I found myself wishing them well. And sometimes that’s enough. (on DVD and Blu-ray)