Doing Fine on Its Own

Jenna Fischer is a dental hygienist with issues in the well-cast indie flick A Little Help

Little low-budget independent films every week, every month, all year long … that’s what keeps the dying movie business from its own burial. A Little Help, written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn, is a benign slice of life about suburban angst on Long Island, N.Y. It’s not much, but thanks to the noble efforts of a very good cast, it’s not the worst I’ve seen.

Jenna Fischer, whose colorless role on TV’s The Office has always left me underwhelmed, plays a dental hygienist named Laura with a mounting pyramid of domestic problems in this dull little picture, which is undeniably well-meaning but can only, at best, be called unremarkable. Laura is married to Bob (Chris O’Donnell), a good-looking real estate drone. They have an obnoxious, overweight 12-year-old son named Dennis (newcomer Daniel Yelsky).

Laura would like Bob to do something about Dennis, but he is rarely home, feigning important night meetings. They haven’t had conjugal relations in months and Laura suspects another woman. Her social life centers on unbearable family dinners with her jealous older sister Kathy (Brooke Smith), their nagging parents (Lesley Ann Warren and Ron Leibman) and Kathy’s embattled stoner husband Paul (Rob Benedict), who has feels a connection with Laura. No wonder Laura drinks too much and Paul hides on the lawn smoking pot. And no wonder Bob drops dead from a heart attack. (Sorry to lose O’Donnell so early.)

No longer a miserable wife, Laura is now a miserable widow who is sinking fast. Her meddling mother pries into her finances, her sister demands that she hire a shyster lawyer to sue her doctor for misdiagnosing Bob’s chest pains. And Dennis, to get sympathy and attention, tells everyone in school that his father was a fireman who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 while rescuing victims (the film is set in 2002).

The movie drags on, passing the time with irrelevant scenes (Kathy’s son takes a guitar lesson from rock ’n’ roll recording star Dion and plays an immediate duet on one of his hit songs) and superfluous dialogue (Laura has a patient who lost a filling eating popcorn at the fights and says, “I felt kinda silly worrying about my toothache and meanwhile, there’s a guy in the ring bleeding from both ears.”).

Eventually Laura makes an appointment with her brother-in-law to relieve sexual tension by consummating their long-postponed date between the sheets, but another crisis interferes when the teachers and students in Dennis’ school expose his lies and all hell breaks loose. No longer able to cope, Laura is already addicted to cases of Budweiser; can Librium be far behind?

The writing is uneven but you do get a sense of what makes the characters tick. I could have done without the scene in which mother and son stage a shouting match, repeatedly screaming “You suck!” and “No, you suck!” The actors are sincere (especially Fischer, who plays frustration well) and the direction has a complacent rhythm, but 108 minutes is too long for a movie in which nothing much happens. You need patience to get through it, and my own patience ran out long before the final unconvincing resolution. A Little Help is obviously not a movie with guaranteed appeal for the masses.

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