Sunday, September 14, 2008

Recent Netflixing - Then She Found Me

Helen Hunt has been out of the spotlight for quite a while now after a brief few years as a interesting and grounded leading lady of films like Twister, As Good As It Gets (for which she won an Oscar), and What Women Want. Pay It Forward didn't really make a dent at the box office and after rooting for her especially when she won the Oscar, and thinking she could really have a fun career with staying power like Laura Linney or Laura Dern (although I now realize she doesn't have the range or fearlessness), I was kind of disappointed when I got wind that she really wanted to work on a pet project of hers. If you're Robert Duvall and you make The Apostle, it works. However, I feel like a lot of times when actors take on a directing role (Matt Dillon in City of Ghosts comes to mind for some reason) there can be less than stellar results, career-wise. It took a few years and didn't really get much fan fare despite the strong cast, but here she is with Then She Found Me, which was released earlier this month on DVD and Blu-ray.

(I'm taking on a review for this because it was filmed in Brooklyn (including St. Patrick's School, Coney Island, and way-out and very somberly filmed Gerritsen Beach, so I figured that's good enough for a lollygag or two).

If you have a picture of Hunt in What Women Want and compare it to any still from this movie, it's remarkable the difference. Her face is hollow and worn, the wrinkles on display as plainly as her wardrobe. She certainly is pulling no punches with her look, and the entire film is surprisingly coherent and somewhat unexciting, there's a natural feel to it that a lot of bigger indies I think really strive for and achieve a heightened sense of. To this teacher, April, who Hunt plays, life is a lot of pastels and grays.

April is shown getting married in the beginning at a Jewish ceremony to Matthew Broderick's character, Ben; they take off and do some bumper cars, but before you know it, her adoptive mother is sick and Ben feels let down by their probably boring life.

Enter two variables; one is a father of two kids who attend the school April teaches in, played with a weird intensity by Colin Firth, and the other is the appearance of April's birth mother in her life, played with an annoying intensity by Bette Midler. However, that annoying nature kind of works as you sense that Bernice, the birth mother/local talk show hostess, is a bit less than who she seems.

On top of all this, April struggles to grasp the concept of motherhood as she really wants a baby, but fears she is too old. Her brother, played by a very good actor Ben Shenkman, provides solace and a counterpoint to her feeling of not being as good because she was adopted.

So what does April do, and in turn, as the audience, how do we follow her small journey and come to see the film as a whole? It is strictly a character study; I wouldn't call it a comedy, I really wouldn't. Yes there are a couple of nice comedic moments, but they are placed carefully and I would really consider this much more of a drama. Hunt keeps it relatively simple in her first feature film as a director (with the exception of that very odd credit that she gives herself for writing the script; she's listed twice). In the commentary, which is "nice" but ultimately doesn't have quite the depth or entertainment value that I really demand to watch all the way through, she mentions that the whole movie revolves around the notion that in order to love and progress, you must come to accept betrayal. It is this theme that is most interesting to the film, and actually really carries it to the end. Much of the film teeters on being good but lacks a bit of punch with the camerawork. I think that was Hunt's intention, to not let the technical aspects get in the way, but it could have been a little more than pedestrian.

The other dimension is April's want of a natural born child. She struggles with her adoption still, and the entrance of Bernice, her birth mother, into her life just makes it more apparent at how lost she's felt. Firth's Frank has his own betrayal problems, his wife leaving him and his kids recently. I had a slight problem with Frank's intensity; he's an incredibly angry person, not tender at all really. He has a nice line, where he states that he's there for his kids until they can take care of themselves, and he doesn't have to like them. It's just his duty, and he makes that point to April in the midst of an argument stemming from a stupid but understandably impulsive decision midway through the film. Hunt's character is a good foil to his, but I just don't buy it, he's a bit too much.

Midler's character tempers down by the end, which is a good thing. April is nothing like her, and doesn't give her much room for mistake just because Bernice is her birth mother. That's something that is important, April's realization that even though her adoptive mother and her didn't get along too well, it was a real relationship and existed as such, and this leads to the last little twist of the film, which really leaves the movie on a high note.

Broderick is the lightest actor here probably in terms of what his character is able to get away with and the number of comedic moments he has. He does well as a child trapped in a man's body, although he's not really in it for that much.

Now to Hunt herself in the role of April. She actually does away with a lot of her particular mannerisms that have carried on throughout her career; she tends to accent sentences in a certain way, I feel like Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise especially are two actors who do that. She has a handful of moments where restraint is the key, because whatever makeup job they did, her sad eyes and tiny mouth in this film work wonders when the camera just sits on her as she's contemplating. She pulls out better beats in her dialogue than in previous films and it's one of her most patience performances. I think her character is a bit more reckless than she thinks, moving to decisions impulsively or at least seemingly so. One could argue that at that age, with less and less hope, she's just putting out her feelers and seeing what comes of it. The exchange between her and Firth at the end really is one of the best moments in the film, I wish the entire film could be as strong.

It's actually a bit pristine, and compared to another film about a Brooklyn teacher, Half Nelson, which granted has a much different tone and storyline, it suffers by comparison. Same can be said when comparing against Judy Berlin. These are all small films that deal with huge problems and have interesting relationships. But I think a film like Half Nelson is a bit more uncompromising and focused, and really presents a style that punctuates it's environment and while TSFM does that to an extent (Brooklyn does look like Brooklyn at least), the script hints at some great things but rarely hammers it home coherently; the structure is off due to the fact that there are a couple storylines going at once. The choices that end up being made are emotionally satisfying, but the themes are much richer, and I think that's what frustrated me about this film.

However, overall, I still thought it is a good effort and it's worth it to take a look. It's a bit boring for the first 30 or 40 minutes, but it starts to pick up, and the script gets stronger. Look for Salman Rushdie as a doctor and a few cameos on Bernice's talk show tapings. Maggie Siff from Mad Men also has a bit part.

I've heard it's much different from the book, and I think an interesting difference, according to Wikipedia, is that April didn't want a child in the book, whereas the film, for a purely emotional reason, April really wants a child (which kind of pushes a good chunk the plot).

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