Daring filmmakers attempted to grapple with the stark, game-changing nature of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Paul Greengrass led the way with United 93, which began from the largely overwhelming perspective of tracking the morning’s events from the control towers to locking audiences onboard one of the planes during its final moments. Oliver Stone followed that take with World Trade Center, burying us amongst the rubble and allowing us to wait and hope for someone to rescue us before it was too late. These highly charged films were caught in the tight-vise of history and myth-making, the celebration of the “American spirit” by showing who “we” were in a moment of crisis.
Writer-director Michael Weithorn, a veteran from the televised situation comedy world (Family Ties, The King of Queens), looks back, almost a decade later, at the period immediately following 9/11, approximately 10 months afterward, in his new film A Little Help, and unearths a completely unique perspective on the tragic event and delves into a more flawed human experience of the moment.
Laura Pehlke (Jenna Fischer), a dental hygienist in suburban Long Island, shuffles along each day, rambling amiably to patients who can’t speak back to her, sneaks in cigarettes as she rushes to pick up her socially awkward 12-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) from school after her husband Bob (Chris O’Donnell) fails to do so and ends her days in a semi-drunken stupor in the laundry room.
She senses that something is wrong with her life, but she is too shellshocked to change things; that is, until she confronts Bob as to whether or not he’s having and affair, which leads to him having a heart attack and dying. Suddenly, Laura and Dennis find themselves not just adrift but also drowning and in desperate need of assistance.
Rather than buck us up with Laura’s can-do spirit in all its glory, Weithorn poses instead that maybe the truth would be to capture the lies she and Dennis might tell to get by. Laura’s overbearing mother (Lesley Anne Warren) and sister (Brooke Smith) hook her up with a lawyer (Kim Coates) who convinces her to offer false testimony about Bob’s health in the last days in order to sue for medical malpractice. And Dennis, tucked away in a new school, dreams up a story about how his father was a fireman who died saving people on 9/11 to gain sympathy and higher social status. But, of course, the lies eventually hurt more than they help.
Everything here feels more real, despite the fact that many of its moments are played for laughs. Weithorn, with help from producer-editor Joe Gressis, a Dayton native, and his television-friendly cast mine the humor but skillfully dig past the broad jokes for the dramatic nerve endings underneath. Although Fischer draws on our familiarity with her from The Office, we see that Laura is navigating a far more complex situation, which could be far too depressing for audiences to bear.
A Little Help could have taken place at any time, but it belongs to this moment in our history because it offers balance by presenting this period without the tragedy writ large and the self-righteousness of the myth of the America people boldly facing a crisis. Weithorn wisely focuses on the everyday, the little moments that wear us down to the point where the ordinary gives way to something extraordinary, when we need a helping hand to make it through. Grade: B
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