Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn, a television sitcom veteran, makes his feature film debut with the slight but likable "A Little Help." In truth, his sitcom origins are pretty apparent as many of the film's situations feel a bit forced for comedic or confrontational value--and yet, the film contains a fair share of charming moments as well. This is one of those small independent endeavors that you will either love if you identify with the characters or be generally underwhelmed by its lack of narrative momentum. I, for my part, enjoyed the movie for its unassuming tone and a bold lead performance by Jenna Fischer. Fischer, best known for "The Office," rarely has a chance to display her acting chops but this is certainly a nice showcase. Despite some of the screenplay's shortcomings, this has to have been a dream part for Fischer who is usually relegated to small or benignly generic supporting roles in feature films. Here she gets to act with a capital "A." And for my money, that is a primary selling point.
Fischer and Chris O'Donnell play a troubled married couple living a typical Long Island existence. When things take a tumultuous turn, Fischer and her son are left to rebuild their lives with the help of her ever-intrusive family. With seasoned vets Leslie Ann Warren and Ron Leibman as her protective (and oftentimes critical) parents and Brooke Smith as a caring (but overbearing) sister, it's a hard road to newly defined independence. Fischer maneuvers through the pratfalls of moving toward maturity and confidence through a series of comedic missteps that seem to be leading her in the right direction. Some of these moments contain genuine emotion, some are lightly amusing, and some are awkwardly strained (come on, does anyone really believe she'd have actively participated in the lie perpetuated at her son's school?). It is the script's unevenness that is perhaps the movie's biggest detriment, but Fischer manages to keep things grounded and on track throughout. In the end, the life lessons might be too understated and barely noticeable to make the journey worthwhile for some viewers--but I didn't mind the film's loose ending.
As I said, I quite liked "A Little Help" despite my intellectual reservations. It is designed to tug at the heartstrings and I was willing to let Fischer and team manipulate my emotions, even in the less-than-real intrusions. While I did love Fischer, the film is NOT a one woman show either. It has some notable work from a trio of actors that are often overlooked or underutilized. Brooke Smith (often misused) is terrific as the put-upon sister--it might be my favorite performance of hers going all the way back to the criminally underrated "Series 7." Rob Benedict (maybe still best known for TV's Felicity), usually playing an oddball or eccentric, gets a sympathetic and well rounded role as Smith's husband who once had a crush on Fischer. And Kim Coates (Prison Break, Sons of Anarchy) scores in a change-of-pace stint as Fischer's aggressive attorney. I appreciated seeing these great actors given a chance to shine! "A Little Help" may be a bit slight for its own good, but I genuinely enjoyed this sleeper. Recommended, but a must-see if you love Fischer. KGHarris, 10/11.