Ashley Judd is Helen, a successful woman who has a good job as a music professor, a second marriage that is working, and a daughter that she loves. Helen is also suffering from depression, and though she has had it under control for years, the illness has slowly been creeping its way back into her life. She starts staying in bed longer in the mornings, she has uncontrollable crying fits, and she's having trouble focusing.
Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck (Mostly Martha), Helen doesn't attempt to play coy with mental illness. The script doesn't set us up for a sucker punch by making Helen's life seem idyllic, we're pretty much aware that something is wrong from the get-go. Nettelbeck is taking us into the story just as things start to unravel. Helen is about what is wrong and what happens when that wrongness is acknowledged.
Helen's husband, David (Goran Visnjic, from TV's ER), does his best to stand by his wife, though once her behavior gets dangerous, he persuades her to take some time in a hospital. There, Helen reconnects with one of her students, Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith, The L Word), a gifted cellist who is suffering from bipolar disorder. Mathilda offers Helen the understanding she needs and the support no one else can give her. They confide in one another, and they start to live together. Only, it's possible the more Helen gets it together--including a second stay in the hospital--the worse it is for Mathilda. The younger woman is using her friend's illness to prop herself up.
Helen is a difficult film to get at. It's photographed beautifully (cinematography is by Michael Bertl, who shot Nettelbeck's other films), the acting is phenomenal (Ashley Judd is excellent and never showy; Lauren Lee Smith is brittle and heartbreaking), and Nettelbeck approaches the subject with an unflinching honesty and is careful to avoid letting her story drift into melodrama. Which may be the problem. Maybe a little melodrama was called for. There is nothing much to cling to in Helen; like the depression it depicts, it offers only sadness. The narrative arc merely tracks the grief receding the way one might watch the tide go further and further from shore. It's amazing to see how deep the wet sand goes when it's no longer covered up, but watching its gradual appearance isn't exactly a riveting way to spend an afternoon.
It's easy to take classic storytelling structures for granted, but they exist for a reason. Likewise, actors are often given big speeches at opportune moments in order to inform audiences of what they are expected to take away from what they've just witnessed. Helen is believable and it has many poignant moments, but now that it's over, I'm stuck wondering what it all means. I have no sense of healing, no comfort from balance being restored, it's merely a fade to black. Ironic, since Helen herself is experiencing a new sunrise.
Helen is, in a way, the worst kind of movie to review. I so desperately want to give everyone involved the praise they deserve, but the film itself is lacking too much for me to be able to say it's really that good. I know that with clinical depression there are no grand reasons for why a person ends up the way they do, but when I'm watching a movie, I hope for something more. Without it, watching Helen is a bit like being depressed. After a while, it feels like it's gone on too long and you start to wonder if you're ever going to come out the other side.
Subtitles are available in English for the deaf and hearing impaired.
There are four interview segments, each with one of the principal actors: Judd, Visnjic, Lee Smith, and Alexia Fast, who plays Ashley Judd's daughter in the movie. They talk about what drew them to Helen and the experience of making the movie. Viewers can choose to play the segments individually or all at once; together, they run just over 42 minutes.