Friday, July 22, 2011

It's Been Ten Years Since September 11th But We Still Need 'A Little Help'...

There was a time when I would encourage anyone wanting to watch a film about 9/11 to pick up one of the oh, so many documentaries put together by PBS or the History Channel or National Geographic. After all, there were literally thousands of people to be profiled from that fateful day-- and thousands more stories to be told from those who were close to those who were lost, as well. But that time was ten years ago. In the initial aftermath of the attacks, I hungrily gobbled up any and all information I could, to try to understand or at least to try to connect, and I encouraged others to do the same. With time and distance comes, well, distance, I guess, though, and now I would like to point you in the direction of an independent darling, A Little Help, should you find yourself approaching the tenth anniversary still searching for something. Maybe even yourself.

Written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn, A Little Help centers on a young mother named Laura (The Office's Jenna Fischer), who has just been floating through life. She's pretty, but not as much as she once was, many like to point out, and she has a husband who provides comfortably enough for her and their son that she doesn't have to work full time if she doesn't want to. And she doesn't seem to want to. In fact, she doesn't seem to want to do much of anything that requires taking an active, let alone responsible, stand in her own life. You could say she is suffering from a form of shock or PTSD since when we meet her it is the summer after September 11th and her town of Port Washington, New York still very much wants everyone to remember and honor the fallen. But truthfully, her problems seem to run much deeper. It is only when her husband (NCIS: Los Angeles' Chris O'Donnell) unexpectedly dies that September 11th takes a new meaning in their life when her young son (Daniel Yelsky) lies and tells his classmates that his dad was actually a fireman lost in the towers after saving three people. And since she is somewhat of a self-sabotaging screw-up of her own, she goes along with his story.

A Little Help, therefore, is not your typical 9/11 story. It is not about the planes or the terrorists or the raining of ash. It is not about police officers or the search for the missing or politics. It is not about heroes. But it is about moving on from tragedy. Even if that tragedy may just be our lives.

But this story brings it in, closer to the vest. Instead of exploring the huge events of the singular day, it explores a very personal struggle in the life that has been forever changed after. And because the film chooses to cope with loss through lies, well, it hit a little close to home on a personal level that made it all the more poignant. But whether or not you still feel the effects of 9/11-- or even if you've never grieved for a person, let alone a way of life-- A Little Help's characters are so rich, you can't help but get sucked in and begin to feel for, and at times in spite of, them.

Obviously Laura is a little bit damaged. Smoking and drinking too much aside, she doesn't have the energy or interest to argue with her own kid, so she lets him tell the lie, and of course that lie spirals and sucks her into it, too. But she has checked out of life and is just going through the motions, so she doesn't really see any potentially long-lasting effects. The audience, though, assumingly is in a healthier mindset than she, so when the lie is finally addressed, it seems more like an "about time" moment than the punch to the gut that it is for Laura. But we are outsiders, observing the sadness while she is deeply immersed within it, allowing it to cloud her judgement and coat every action (or inaction, as the case may be).

Laura is not the only one dragging her heels, not making the most of her life, though. Her brother-in-law Paul (Supernatural's Rob Benedict) has fallen into a life he never really wanted for himself but is now in too deep to do much about it. Or so is the attitude that plagues him and weighs him down, forcing him instead to only live vicariously through his own son (Zach Page), a free-spirit and budding musician. Neither can live up to the conservative and somewhat elitest expectations of Laura's sister and Paul's wife Kathy (Grey's Anatomy's Brooke Smith), and so they begin to lean on each other in what becomes a very sweet, "share the load," escapist way. Without each other, each one would probably crumble or just give up completely. Thankfully, though, when together, they bring out the best in each other, inspire each other, and in subtle ways, spark the interest in being better people because of, even if not for, each other. And maybe because of that, they are working towards being heroes. At least in their own lives.

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