One thing to bear in mind going in to “A Little Help” is the matter of scale. Unabashedly, this is one of those “small” films, in “limited” release, gradually making its way across some but not all of the country for brief stints in sufficiently urbane cities where it might actually find an audience, albeit not a “big” audience. It’s here now, but in the blink of an eye it’s gone — at least gone from an actual movie theater near you.
And this is how TV veteran writer-director Michael J. Weithorn takes a shot at soulfully edgy dark movie comedy — with a tale of ordinary domestic upheaval in post-9/11 Long Island life that happens also to be a Jenna Fischer vehicle. We know Weithorn best for creating “The King of Queens,” and Fischer, of course, from co-starring in “The Office.” Their joint venture in “A Little Help,” whose plot details are best left undisclosed here and discovered in situ, has a habit of trading on small-screen familiarity.
Admittedly this minor qualm isn’t very useful now, with the matter of scale increasingly relative given pocketable personal digital movie projectors and ambitious, cinematically inclined entertainments made directly for cable TV. It’s just to say that “A Little Help” doesn’t seem entirely sure of its stature. Usefully, that sort of uncertainty is also partly what it’s about. That, plus a study of Fischer’s prettiness, and the limits thereof. Her gameness for going there, notwithstanding a few shrill notes and some sitcomish blocking, is as appealing as expected. It’s easy to relate as she negotiates an obstacle course of tensions, humiliations and fleeting vindications.
Foremost among the Fischer character’s challenges is the parenting, without even a little help, of a pre-teen boy. He’s impressively played by Daniel Yelsky: wise beyond his years but not fully comprehending or wanting his wisdom. It feels like a discovery to see how he enlivens the precocious-brat and foil-for-protaognist routines that have been handed to him. But then maybe Weithorn always knew he would. And it’ll be interesting to watch Yelsky get older and get more work. With his roundish features and his dueling weariness and aliveness, he’ll probably get cast as Orson Welles before long.
When not coasting on snarky-mopey pep, slick production values and an earnestly narcotizing Jakob Dylan soundtrack, Weithorn paces scenes briskly and generously gives all his players — including Rob Benedict, Brooke Smith, Chris O’Donnell and particularly an exceptional Kim Coates — some good bits of character business to play with. In that regard a sense of compactness helps, as it conveys Weithorn’s practiced understanding of dramatic economy.
For example, in one exchange between Coates, as a litigator, and Fischer, as a woman who still isn’t sure how her life came to include a litigator, the dialogue goes like this:
“When someone says go fuck yourself, you don’t go fuck yourself, do you?”
And the moment is wonderfully played, for all it’s worth, which turns out to be more than might at first have been apparent. Now, it’s not like you can’t do that on television these days, but that’s no reason not to do it in a movie. Overall, “A Little Help” comes across like one of those vintage sitcoms that you liked for being funny and weren’t sure about when it turned serious. You won’t know if you can get behind it unless you try. Before it’s too little, too late.