For some people, the shorthand description of the movie Helen will be enough: “Ashley Judd stars in a movie about a woman with suicidal depression.”
Need more? OK, Helen is a very serious and heavy film. Serious and heavy in the manner of a very special made-for-TV movie, missing only the 1-800 number for more information about the serious issues it invokes.
I’m not trying to make light of the subject matter. But movies where the moviemaking takes second place to the “issue” tend not to be very good. And even within that genre of “teachable moment” films, there’s usually focus.
Not so in Helen. It’s a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to say, except “it can happen to anybody,” and “maybe shock treatment isn’t as bad as you think.”
The hint that Helen the film is as troubled as Helen, the character, can be found in the fact that they’ve chopped almost a half hour of running time since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival more than a year ago. And it still seems long.
When we meet Helen (Ashley Judd), she and her husband David (Goran Visnjic) are entertaining friends at a house party. Beaming, she reluctantly agrees to favour the crowd with a piano recital (we discover she’s a music professor). Something about the music seems to dampen her mood, and soon, after the guests have gone, we see her in a fetal position, sobbing.
Later at the college, she runs across a cello player named Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith), frustrated to tears at a passage she can’t quite “get.” The two click, although we don’t know yet just how profoundly.
Helen’s depression deepens, she ignores her job, her husband and 13-year-old daughter Julie (Alexia Fast). A suicide attempt later, she is hospitalized. Her ex-husband relates to David the post-partum meltdown that Helen experienced after Julie’s birth — an episode that led to the breakdown of their marriage and lengthy loss of custody of Julie.
David vows he’ll stay with her no matter what — a rather empty promise, as it turns out. Maybe it’s the radical cutting this movie has undergone, but his patience is measured in but a few minutes of screentime. So it is that Helen and Mathilda, who meet again when both are confined to the same mental health-care ward, bond a la Girl, Interrupted, and end up sharing Mathilda’s loft.
Interestingly (though not believably), Mathilda is a pillar of strength when Helen is messed up, and cracks when she improves. Their relationship is like a teeter-totter in that regard, and the plot arc seems to demand that one of them fall off (tragically, natch) so the other can move on.
I wish the movie itself had mood swings as wild as Mathilda’s. Judd’s depression is relentless. She has practically no “on” moments.
I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I do know people who’ve been treated for mental illness, and it doesn’t preclude them from having a sense of humour. In fact, it’s probably a pretty handy coping mechanism. Certainly a sardonic laugh or two would have helped this earnest movie.
(This film is rated 14A)