Sometimes unexpected things happen—unexpected things that throw you way off track. So what do you do now? You get A Little Help, and if you don’t ask for it, it’ll find you instead.
Jenna Fischer takes the mesmerizing lead in this indie feature set in suburban Long Island in 2002. Fischer plays Laura, a friendly and hard-working dental hygienist. Out of the office, however, she’s troubled by herself and her family. Cigarettes and beer are her vices; she feels bogged down by her overbearing mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) and sister Kathy (Brooke Smith); her 12-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) is becoming distant and annoyed by her; and she suspects that her real estate agent husband Bobby (Chris O’Donnell) is cheating on her. When Bobby suddenly dies from an undetected heart problem, Laura lets her parents and Kathy make two major decisions for her: to send Dennis to a private school and to sue the ER doctors who handled Bobby for malpractice—two things that make Laura feel even more unsettled. Meanwhile, struggling to make friends at his new school, Dennis gains popularity by lying about his father’s death, saying he was a firefighter who died on 9/11. Along with having to keep this secret for Dennis, an overwhelmed Laura finds a sense of peace with her brother-in-law Paul (Rob Benedict), who has his own problems in his marriage and family life with Kathy. Ron Leibman and Kim Coates co-star in memorable roles as Laura’s father and litigator, respectively.
Despite the tragedy of the death in the film—and it is tragic as Laura and Dennis are saddened and deal with it in their own unconventional ways—it hardly feels tragic. Without spoiling it, the scene where Bobby experiences his fatality is actually a little bit humorous, as it occurs in such an offbeat way. The uniqueness of A Little Help is how the most serious and intense of situations can become funny and without being demeaning. For example, Laura and Dennis have quite a few scenes where they are so frustrated that you feel like they’re going to hit each other at any moment. Instead, in one particular instance, Laura simply points at Dennis and says “YOU!” after her exclamations of “Yousuckyousuckyousuckyousuck!” and it exemplifies seventh-grade comedy at its finest.
Logistically, the story flows nicely, although a few scenes cut too short (Really it’s only flaw). It isn’t just Laura’s perspective that’s shown, but we also get to witness what Dennis is going through, as well as Paul, making for a well-rounded narrative. The dynamics between Laura and Dennis are explosive and loving at the same time. They have no problem unleashing their anger at each other, to a point where Dennis is pretty much disrespecting his own mother. But they care about each other and they both know that things are no longer the same without Bobby, so they try to help the other person move forward in spite of their qualms. Paul as a significant character allows viewers to know more about him, Kathy, and their teenage twin children Wendy (Sara Kapner) and Kyle (Zach Page). Not only do we get a full picture of Laura’s entire family, but it shows how much she and Paul have in common. It is also revealed that the two grew up together, which makes things very interesting. The entire cast has their moments and gives their shares of laughs and drama, but Fischer’s performance is a knockout, as a character with a disposition that can either be sunny or slightly disturbed. The role was tailor-made for her, with her remarkable abilities to star in a comedy that’s also poignantly emotional. Yelsky as her son gives another noteworthy performance, just by being effortless and bouncing off of Fischer’s comic and dramatic timing.
The hilarity of the film is special, but there are genuinely somber moments that remind us of bonds that are created and worth keeping. A Little Help isn’t so much about death as it is about life. It’s a film about expecting and not expecting the unexpected and about what to do after the curveball is caught. It’s about discovering what you had, or what you thought you had, only to discover something new and better. It’s about building and rebuilding. Even through its oddities, the excellent performances and story make A Little Help an engaging watch, and something for everyone to feel connected with.