In his debut feature, celebrated television writer/producer Michael J. Weithorn (Family Ties, The King of Queens) creates an unforgettable portrait of a woman whose life is coming apart at the seams, and the strength she discovers within herself to knit that life back together. A warm, richly funny and deeply human drama in the tradition of such filmmakers as Alexander Payne, Kenneth Lonergan and Noah Baumbach, A LITTLE HELP introduces filmgoers to the vibrantly flawed Laura Pehlke, and to a fully-formed cinematic voice whose insight, sympathy and leftfield humor make Laura’s struggles our own.
A LITTLE HELP is set in Port Washington, Long Island, not far from where the filmmaker grew up. “That’s just me being lazy,” he deadpans. “Instead of being creative and inventing something, I’m just using a place where I know that all this stuff exists.” But the setting, with its geographic and emotional proximity to New York City, proved to be an ideal locale for Weithorn’s evocative film. “The town has a lot of personality to it, and it really felt like the right place to set this particular story,” he observes. “It’s kind of a general suburban environment, but behind every door there’s something very intense and dramatic going on.”
With the script finished in 2005, the film took several years to come together. The key moment in its journey to the screen was almost certainly Jenna Fischer’s response to the story. “I loved the role of Laura immediately,” states Fischer. “It’s rare to find a script with such a strong female role. She was tragic and sad, but warm and funny at the same time. I met with Michael, and I loved his take on the character.”
“And I wanted to try something that I hadn’t done before,” she continues. “I wanted to break out of the ‘Pam’ mold a little.” Certainly, Laura Pehlke is a far cry from Fischer’s much-loved role as Pam Beesly on NBC’s modern classic sitcom The Office. But the essential hallmarks of Fischer’s work on the show—her accessibility, naturalism, stealthy humor and emotional openness—are very much in evidence in A LITTLE HELP, while the expansive range of the character, manifested through her determined struggle to re-take control of her life, turns the role into a true performer’s showcase.
With Fischer in place as the film’s lynchpin, the rest of the talented cast took shape. “Once we had Jenna,” observes Weithorn, “the whole thing felt like, ‘Oh, there’s a movie here now.’ And Rob Benedict came in and read, and was wonderful. He just kind of owned it, and understood it… And then Lesley Ann Warren and Ron Leibman and Brooke Smith… I’ve cast a lot of things over the years, and this just fell into place in a great way.”
That perspective is echoed by Benedict, who delivers a richly lived-in performance as Paul Helms. “There’s something about this script,” he notes. “I just said ‘I want to do it.’ It’s a very well-written script, and it’s rare you read a script where the words really fit in your mouth as an actor… I didn’t have to do a lot of preparation for this movie because it was kind of there. We had a whole week when we were going to rehearse and Jenna and I didn’t really want to rehearse because it was there already. Which is a testament to Michael—he’s a great writer. We don’t have to do a ton; he builds it for us.”
Benedict isn’t the only actor who found a lot to identify with in his character. Daniel Yelsky, whose poignant turn as Dennis Pehlke lends the story so much of its emotional weight, describes his first encounter with the script: “I read the character description and I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is exactly like everyday life for me.’ I read the lines, and I was definitely in love with this character.” Zach Page, the talented young performer and musician who plays Paul’s son Kyle, offers a similar reflection in the relationship between casting and preparation. “When you cast the way this film was cast,” he observes, “with actors who are similar to their roles, really good scriptwriting like Michael did kind of takes away some of the need for really heavy preparation. None of the characters are too far out of the norm for any of us.”
That effortless emotional truth comes through most particularly in A LITTLE HELP’s unique handling of the events of September 11th. That tragedy hovers over the film like a ghost, as the film accomplishes the rare feat of re-creating the abstract sense of uncertainty and loss the events left in their wake, even months after the towers fell.
As Weithorn observes, his film “is not a ’9/11′ film in any formal sense, the resonance of those attacks do provide an emotional backdrop for the story –the way in which they caused intense emotional disorientation and loss of confidence in the reliability of the familiar structures of our own private worlds and the world at large.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about A LITTLE HELP is that in spite of the ostensible “heaviness” of its subject matter and its 9/11 backdrop, the film is gratifyingly funny. That may be less surprising given the outstanding sitcom pedigree of Weithorn and Fischer, and the story’s humor sits comfortably within the naturalistic and seemingly effortless comic aesthetic that typifies such series as The Office and The King of Queens. As in those programs, the eminently quotable jokes that pepper A LITTLE HELP arise from the authenticity of the story’s human relationships, the intimacy with which its husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters know each other.
“I was very happy in finding a zone with this script,” relates Weithorn, “where the comedy and drama can sort of dance together.” Maintaining that balance—where the tone of a given scene can shift from humorous to painful within the space of a few lines—can be a challenge, but it’s one that the director and his cast took in stride. “It seemed to get funny where it ‘wanted’ to be funny pretty easily,” Weithorn notes, “without violating the tone of the drama, and vice-versa.”
Much of that facility can be credited to Weithorn’s strong rapport with his cast. “He was an actor’s dream,” Fischer confirms, “in the sense that he was prepared and very clear about every element of the film. He was also incredibly trusting of the actors. He was very good at letting us play around with a scene, and seemed tickled every time we found a new layer. He loved both his characters and his actors. I think his television background made it possible for him to think quickly on his feet – you have to do that in television, and you also have to do that on low budget films.”
That attention and sensitivity is evident in every frame of A LITTLE HELP. It’s a film that lives and breathes in the subtlety of its details, in its characters’ fitful attempts to tack between their desires and their responsibilities. It’s a tension of which the actors were well aware. Continues Fischer, “I think a lot of people have a hard time growing up. There is still that perception that becoming an adult means giving up your childhood dreams… A lot of the adults in this movie are restless. They haven’t found a good base yet for their lives. They are still searching.” Unsurprisingly, Rob Benedict operated on precisely the same wavelength. “I grew up in a community that somewhat resembles this community,” he notes. “People kind of get stuck there. So I get that. I get what it means to escape and find little ways to escape.”
Ultimately, Laura’s journey is one that’s identifiable for anyone who’s gone through a painful transitional moment in their lives. And the peace and strength she finally discovers are, in their hard-won way, quietly inspirational. “There’s warmth in the film, I think,” summarizes Weithorn, “but not to the degree that it’s some kind of mushy, sweet little thing. More than anything else, the goal was to have the character’s words and actions and relationships feel real, for better or worse…. Laura’s journey does leave her in a better place at the end, but not in an idealized way. Hopefully it will feel like she earned her way there.”
Without question, that transformation is well-earned. The Laura who drives away from her parents’ house at the conclusion of the film is a vastly different woman than the lost soul who hides her cigarettes and sneaks her beers at the outset. It’s not an easy path, but Weithorn and his cast make a compelling case that with A LITTLE HELP, we all can grow through our trials, reach that safe harbor in our lives, and occasionally enjoy a much-needed moment of comic relief along the way.