Laura Pehlke has a life that looks good on paper in A Little Help, an engrossing dramedy from director Michael J. Weithorn that just made its world premiere at the Seattle Film Festival recently.
Jenna Fischer is Laura, a dental hygenist whose marriage isn’t going well. She’s married to Bob (Chris O’Donnell), a real estate agent who is mostly concerned with his next big acquisition. The marriage isn’t happy, marred by his infidelity and her drinking. They have a twelve year old son and a home in suburban Long Island. They made the choices one expects to make to get to their lot in life. She married the good-looking guy who got a well-paying job. It’s the life one could expect from a suburbanite: upper middle class, children, nice home, close to her family. She was comfortable, but not happy.
Her life was thrown off-track when her husband suddenly dies from a heart defect.
After that, a handful of crucial choices fell into Laura’s lap, mostly beyond her control. Her family insists on enrolling her son in a private school neither she nor her son wants and on pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the emergency room doctor that misdiagnosed her late husband. Her son, when pressed why his father died, was desperate for approval and told his new classmates he was a heroic firefighter who died saving people on 9/11.
That description may make the film sound like a made-for-Lifetime melodrama, but what makes the film compelling is the authenticity of this character-driven film. The film is centered around Laura but the characters in her family are equally realized and, aside from a sleazy lawyer character, no one seems inauthentic.
Weithorn wrote and directed the film. He said in a roundtable discussion with a handful of Seattle film writers that the Laura character was “based on one woman, but mostly an amalgam, sort of as a woman who had skated by on her good looks. The choices she made that seemed easy and effortless are now coming home to roost.” He added that “life isn’t as easy anymore. As I was writing this, I knew a woman who was sort of going through something like this and I was heartbroken. It was like she had the rug pulled out from her and didn’t know why. I added the particulars to it.”
In the audience Q&A after its first screening at SIFF, Weithorn said that several years ago, there was a possibility of making the film with Drew Barrymore in the Laura part, which fortunately never came to fruition, even if it would have meant the film would have been made sooner and with a bigger budget. Having seen the film, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Jenna Fischer playing the part. She’s very pretty but still looks approachable, unlike an actress like Sienna Miller or Scarlett Johansson, whose beauty is immediately intimidating. Here she still looks gorgeous but also exhausted, like she’s had too many cans of Budweiser and nights crying.
Fischer said she was drawn to the part because it was “a movie with a female protagonist that wasn’t a romantic comedy, it wasn’t a woman looking for love, but a woman struggling with life. She was trying to be an independent person but at the same time be a great mom, she’s having to grow up unexpectedly.” She didn’t see much of her self in that part, though, telling me when I asked if anything from the character was drawn from her own life “it really was this story that Michael wanted to tell and it was based on a woman he knew, so I just asked him a lot of questions about this woman. It’s not her story but she had a lot of these characteristics of Laura and he built the story around her. There was nothing where I pitched something that was autobiographical.”
She draws distinctions between the Laura character, the character she is best known for (Pam Beesly on the hit TV show “The Office”) and her own personality. “I’m much feistier than Pam, the woman everyone knows me as. I’m not as explosive as Laura, but I had my twenties, my crazy outbursts and I am an actress and we are known to be dramatic,” she said.
If Jenna Fischer was hesitant to draw parallels to her character, one who wasn’t was her co-star Rob Benedict, who played her brother-in-law Paul and who, despite marrying Laura’s sister, always harbored a romantic interest in Laura. He said “one of the things that was really cool for me was that I really identified with this guy right away. I have a music background, I play the guitar and I’m a dad. While I’m in a good marriage, I related to that idea that you have these desires that are held in check because of the boundaries and the reality that is your life.” He also said that his character was “a guy who always got by with his humor, but he never scored with the ladies, so he used his sense of humor as his defense.”
That underscores an important point: this film is also very funny. The immediate comic relief is played by Ron Liebman, who is playing Laura’s father. He’s a former journalist who is constantly bragging about being “there” at important events. The most obvious humor scene was when he claimed to have been the first person in the ring after Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in 1964. That scene is played for laughs but throughout the rest of the film, the humor is more subtle and implied. Benedict said of this “these are people you know and the humor was something where you look back on it and think ‘that was really funny’ even though my character wasn’t going for the laugh. That was all rooted in reality, so that’s why this was a movie I liked.”
A Little Help is a small-budget film that is currently seeking distribution, so it’s unknown when it could be playing beyond the film festival circuit right now. When asked about the film’s prospects, Weithorn was hoping to work out a deal to get it soon in the near future but added “I don’t think this is a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, where it’ll be an ‘indie’ that breaks out. I’m not criticizing that movie, but it had a more deliberate, big climactic finish and uplift and everyone is happy. I deliberately did not want that for this movie.”
(SIFF cast photo by April Brimer.)