The conventional wisdom is that little films about people's everyday problems can't get made anymore, especially if the main character is female. A Little Help proves that conventional wisdom isn't always right.
Jenna Fischer stars as Laura, a thirtysomething dental hygienist unhappily married to the handsome and successful corporate real-estate businessman Bob (Chris O'Donnell). She thinks Bob is cheating on her, and when she confronts him about it, he tells her she drinks too much, does a poor job raising their son, and has let herself go. Laura's type-A sister, Kathy (Brooke Smith), intensifies Laura's penchant for self-loathing by always telling her how she's messing up. An unexpected conclusion to the marriage problem surfaces when Bob dies from an undiagnosed heart condition, but that's hardly the end of Laura's troubles. Her moody tween son, Dennis (Daniel Yelsky), tells his new classmates that his dad died in 9/11, and Kathy's easy-going husband, Paul (Rob Benedict), confesses that he's been in love with Laura since high school.
Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn has a warm humanity going for him. He loves these characters -- even the most damaged of them, and even when they are behaving at their absolute worst -- and boy can his main character be difficult to like. Fischer is fearless in that capacity; it's not common in a movie to see a mother lose herself to genuine anger and frustration when dealing with a moody child, but there's a brutal verbal fight between Laura and Dennis at one point that best reflects the film's ability to make us confront our ambivalence toward the characters.
Fischer benefits the most from the movie's humanism since she has the most screen time, yet all of the actors find a balance where we are quite fond of them for some reasons, and hate them for others. Brooke Smith thrives in this zone, as does Rob Benedict, who turns Paul into an attractive alternative for Laura until you realize that his best feature -- his patience -- might cost him the woman he loves.
Although this is Weithorn's first feature film, he's had a long career in television, and that shows in A Little Help's episodic structure. There isn't much narrative momentum, but there is an abundance of interesting, flawed, and complicated characters, and that keeps us engaged in the movie even when the occasional scene feels unformed or there just for exposition. The humanism informs not just the film's style and point-of-view, but its moral as well -- which Weithorn makes explicit in a bittersweet story shared by one of the characters. While A Little Help isn't perfect, the movie works well enough that you'll forgive not only the characters' flaws but the film's as well.