Helen (Sandra Nettlebeck, 2009)
Ashley Judd is singularly excellent at playing people who are about to break down, in the process of breaking down, or have just broken down. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about Ms. Judd’s personal life, but it does make many of her performances schadenfreude-style treats when consumed on the big screen. And the first thirty-odd minutes of Sandra Nettlebeck’s Helen are described perfectly by this. Unfortunately, the movie runs two hours.
Plot: Helen (Judd) and David (ER‘s Goran Visnjic) are a seemingly happy couple whose life couldn’t be better—that is, until Helen begins changing. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that she’s sliding into depression (like I said, this stage of the film is its first quarter, give or take). And we’re not talking rainy-day blues here, we’re talking crippling, life-threatening depression. She eventually hits bottom and deserts her family—and her doctor—to bond with Mathilde (Lie with Me‘s Lauren Lee Smith), a similarly-affected former student of hers, while David tries to figure out what went wrong and how to make it better.
It’s impossible to get into the meat of why the last three-quarters of the movie don’t work without what some may consider spoilers, though they have to do with the experience of depression rather than things specific to the film, so I will throw in a spoiler alert here and let the reader beware. The problem is that “what went wrong” is, as will be instantly recognizable by anyone who has lived through this kind of depression or lived with someone who has lived through this kind of depression, the wrong question entirely to be asking. I have no doubt that was Nettlebeck’s point; the problem is that if her intention was to portray the ineffectual nature of David’s quest leading to almost causing his own breakdown, she perhaps did it too well, as watching it is almost as frustrating as living it. One review I read of the film recently said this is a lesson as much as it is a movie. Indeed. And the didactic nature is liable to grate on anyone who already knows the answer.
Still, Ashley Judd’s performance in the first part of this movie does make this worth watching, though I think you’d be forgiven for deciding to turn it off halfway through. **