"Helena from the Wedding" is a film festival wet dream come to life. Shot on HD, filled with a cast of exploratory actors salivating over themes of temptation, and set inside a secluded cabin during a snowy winter, the picture has all the ingredients necessary to delight the average art-house theater. The film almost reaches a resonate plateau, observing the frosty nuances of relationships with a game cast and an intriguing plot. The picture ultimately doesn't end up anywhere, but moments are accounted for nicely, creating a warm bath of razors for those who prefer their onscreen relationships to be as hesitant as possible.
It's New Year's Eve for newlyweds Alex (Lee Tergesen) and Alice (Melanie Lynskey), who've planned a getaway weekend for their close circle of friends, including high-maintenance Lynn (Jessica Hecht) and bullied husband Don (Dominic Fumusa), pregnant Eve (Dagmara Dominczyk) and lawyer Steven (Cory Stroll), and single man Nick (Paul Fitzgerald). With booze and bickering creating a slightly hostile environment for the group, a true spoiler drops by in the form of Helena (Gillian Jacobs), a comely friend of Eve's who riles up the men in the house, screwing with Alex's head just as his marriage is starting to solidify.
A talky, expressive viewing experience such as "Helena from the Wedding" lives or dies by the skill of its cast. After all, without the comfort of cinematic artifice driving the suspense, all that remains are the performances. Mercifully, writer/director Joseph Infantolino has assembled an admirable ensemble to breathe life into the formless set-up, deploying gifted actors to articulate uneasy social gatherings and frayed marriages, with each member of the cast imparting memorable work while the filmmaker massages his metaphors and plays around in the snow.
Ostensibly the lead character, Alex is the foundation for the story, experiencing the routine of marriage and the pull of temptation, with the weekend turned upside down due to Helena's arrival. Tergesen hits all the required beats of regret and machismo, infusing the film with an uncomfortable reality of manhood, flirting with disaster while inches away from his tender wife. The often comical "hunt" for Helena's attention provides welcome levity and effortless danger to the piece, creating something resembling a plot in a picture that often refuses structure.
Using the wintry isolation to exploit multiple marital experiences, Infantolino seizes a satisfying abrasion, making for engrossing drama. The interplay can feel forced when pushed into overly improvisational sprints, but the underlying core of vulnerability makes the film human and not just a low-budget routine of ennui. I'm not sure there's any reason to care about these characters, but their troubles are universal, supplying credible frustration.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation works the HD cinematography the best it can, making commendable use of winter colors and warm interiors, bringing that exact cabin mood to life. Some EE is detected, and blacks tend to smear when stretched into evening sequences. Skintones appear natural.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix is as straightforward as can be, working the various voices with clarity and frontal energy. Little music is found here, while atmospherics are evocative, articulating the crunch of snow and the stillness of the cabin.
"Interviews" (32:20) are EPK-style chats with the cast, recorded on-set. The actors discuss how they came to join the film and explore their character motivations, along with offering plenty of praise for Infantilino.
A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
The last act of the film introduces drugs and intoxication, dampening the mood of the film by packing in overt cliché. There are enough viable dilemmas to go around without using chemicals to motivate confession, and it hurts the appeal of the film immensely. "Helena from the Wedding" is best served as an insular state of concern, where these characters are urged to explode with unexpected behavior. The drugs and drink merely reinforce the familiarity of it all.