Jenna Fischer talks directly to the camera in early scenes in “A Little Help.” She lets us see the life that’s overwhelming her, the bitterness that threatens to swallow her whole and the irritation she’s trying her darnedest to hide.
As Laura, a woman unhappy with work — she’s a dental hygienist — unhappily married (Chris O’Donnell plays the husband always “in a meeting”) and failing at keeping the upper hand with her rude 12-year-old son (Daniel Yelsky), Fischer has the perfect big screen role to fit her TV-perfected (“The Office”) hangdog persona. Toss in the mother (Lesley Anne Warren) and sister (Brooke Smith) who bully her — “You are nothing but a spoiled, self-indulgent teenager! — and it’s no wonder that Laura sneaks cigarettes in her car and chugs Budweiser in her quieter moments. She’s lost.
“A Little Help” is an odd duck of a period piece dramedy, a wonderfully detailed character-study set on Long Island a year after the 9/11 attacks.
The marital fights in have the sting of familiarity — “You checked out of this marriage way before me!” Laura grabs another beer and vows to “look good for” her man, again. Back in her day, she was the prom queen. But not any more.
And then, just like that, she’s widowed. The marriage she wanted to fix or cast aside is over. Her kid copes in unacceptable ways, which she helplessly indulges. Her relatives push her at a no-prisoners lawyer (Kim Coates) who promises revenge, or restitution for her husband’s death. And only her long-suffering brother-in-law (Rob Benedict, quite good) — a mellow fellow all about letting HIS kids figure things out for themselves, try their hand at pop music or whatever — seems to relate.
It’s not a huge stretch to see Fischer playing a character overwhelmed by little things long before the tidal wave of major life changes rolls in. What is cool is seeing her as a distinct “type,” the faded beauty who peaked in high school and stopped growing, learning and evolving right about then. Laura’s fighting battles with the same weapons she used twenty years ago because she never had to struggle to acquire new ones. Her arguments with her 12 year-old are amusingly childish and real. We all know a Laura or two — somebody raising a child who hasn’t quite abandoned adolescence herself.
Writer-director Michael J. Weithorn’s tie-in to 9/11 is a bit of a stretch and a something of a groaner. But he’s blessed with a cast that makes the clunkier moments skip by, almost unnoticed. Connelly, Smith and Benedict are terrific. Warren and Ron Liebman perfectly paint a portrait of the self-centered parents who launched Laura into the world, an apple not far at all from their tree.
And Fischer, her timing and double-takes polished by TV, finally has a big screen role that perfectly plays off the persona she’s built for herself — approachable, wounded and fully grown “wreck-of-a-girl-next-door.”
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and drug use
Cast: Jenna Fischer, Kim Coates, Daniel Yelsky, Chris O’Donnell, Ron Liebman, Lesley Anne Warren.
Credits: Written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn, produced by Joe Gressis, Dena Hysell. A Freestyle release. Running time: 1:49