by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: I'd like to think I'm generous when reviewing and rating movies: If I enjoy a movie while watching it, but it loses something on later examination, I make sure to emphasize that this doesn't undo the initial good time. If it rises in my estimation upon reflection, that's a positive too. Although "Helen" falls into the latter category, I'm sad to say that the way it came together in my head afterward isn't quite enough for me to recommend it.Though Helen is named for one girl, it opens with another, as we watch Joy Thompson separate from a group of friends, cross a park, and then continue off-screen. She's off in the distance throughout this shot, then there's a cut to her eye-catching yellow jacket lying on the ground, and she's missing. The police plan to film a reconstruction to air on television, and wind up recruiting another student at the college, Helen (Annie Townsend), to stand in for her. She's about the same size and coloration, and she's encouraged to speak to Joy's parents (Sandie Malia and Denis Jobling) and boyfriend Danny (Danny Groenland) for tips. Helen being a lonely girl - she lives in a group home and works at a hotel when other teenagers are hanging out with friends - she finds herself gravitating toward Danny and the Thompsons.
"No Joy to this one."
And there you have something perilously close to the whole story. It's not a bad framework for a film, actually, but it seems like there should be something more. This could be the first act of a thriller, for instance, and even if only one in ten of the scripts that go that route would be any good, it's worth a shot. Even if that wasn't where filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy wanted to go, they could have taken this weird situation and worked it somehow. Instead, we get the occasional baby step toward something dramatic happening, but for the most part, the movie remains passive. Indeed, there are multiple scenes of Helen just lying on the ground where Joy's jacket was found, just thinking or maybe trying to form some connection to the other girl for the re-enactment we never see filmed.
This is, of course, the sort of thing calculated to drive me absolutely mad, as I like movies where people do things. Stillness has its place, but this mainly serves to point out that Helen is something of a blank, which we picked up on early and don't much need repeated. There are some good moments - an awkward dinner shared by Helen and the Thompsons, for instance, or Helen considering whether or not to read the file on the mother who abandoned her. They're just interesting moments, though, the sort that make the audience wonder where the story will go with it as opposed to actually going somewhere.
In a way, that all makes Annie Townsend's work a little more impressive. We are not given a whole lot of easy hooks for the character, even after she's become less cryptic. She manages to make us curious about this girl, doing a nice job of showing her coming out of her shell, while keeping things ambiguous. There are moments when it appears she is consciously insinuating herself into Joy's life, and others when it appears to be just the natural actions of people in complementary roles. Much of the rest of the cast is less impressive, especially the women playing the investigators, who just feel like they drag things out. Malia and Joblin aren't bad as the parents, though.The movie comes to a close after about an hour and twenty minutes, and it feels much more like it stops than ends. Looking back on the film, it finished up its main themes, but it feels like we should have more - like a missing person investigation, for instance. It's not as bad as it felt initially, but still pretty disappointing.
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originally posted: 05/07/09 22:42:08