SXSW Review: ‘Helena From the Wedding”

Featuring a terrific ensemble cast led by Lee Tergesen, Melanye Linsky and Gillian Jacobs Helena From the Wedding is a straightforward and simple story well told about a group of friends gathered at a house in the mountains for New Years Eve. Naturally, none of the relationships among these people are exactly what they seem on the surface and as the film progresses you learn more about their darker, hidden sides and their flaws and insecurities.

When you have a great cast and give them interesting things to do you end with a good film that doesn’t rely on any sort of effects, CGI, explosions or any of the crutches many of the big time directors making big budget movies rely on these days. It’s the mark of a skilled filmmmaker who can take a simple film where people interact and talk about things and still manage to make it interesting.

Of course, it helps to have a very gifted actor at the center of the film. Lee Tergesen is one of those actors you’ve undoubtedly seen in something but you may not be able to place him. He inhabits a role so well that you almost don’t recognize him from project to project. That’s one of his major strengths.

When you watch him you feel like you’re watching an actual person, instead of a character. He’s not acting, he’s living.

I was first aware of Tergesen’s work in HBO’s groundbreaking series Oz, where is portrayal of Beecher was one of the emotional and moral anchors of that show. As Beecher develops and is forever changed by his experiences in prison, as brutal as they are, the audience is able to gain insight through him as he served as our surrogate for the process.

In Helena, Tergesen again demonstrates his consummate ability to inhabit a role and bring it to life. His portrayal of Alex, a failed playright at the crossroads of a midlife crisis, brings to light the troubles and doubts that plague us all at one time or another. His life and marriage are in trouble and he’s not entirely aware of it until Helena, a younger and beautiful model he met at a wedding, shows up and stirs up feelings he thought were long buried.

Helena also features a terrific ensemble of other actors who’s various struggles and crises mirror those of Alex. From his wife, played by the gifted Melanie Lynskey to his so-called friends, these characters provide a great support system for Alex and through their various issues, conflicts and resolutions, Alex comes to realize that his life, although fraught with problems and disappointments, is still pretty darn good.

Plus, as his childhood friend says near the end of the film : “What does it mean to be sure?” This statement echoes the central themes of the film and highlights the struggle in all of us to try and be sure we’re doing the right thing even when we feel like we’re not.

One device that I thought particularity well used in the film is silence. In many films, sound plays a huge role. Characters speak, explosions explode, and sound effects or music are often used as an explanation point for scenes. This film goes a different way and has several scenes where the almost complete lack of sound dominates.

Characters don’t speak or are about to speak and then stop or looks and glances take the place of long passages of exposition. It’s in these moment of silence and looks that a great deal of information is transmitted and characters are really able to express themselves. Plus, these bits of nuance which communicate so much again demonstrate a group of actors working at the top of their craft.

Helena From The Wedding is a simple, quiet film filled with great actors who are given quite a bit to do. It allows us to explore who we are as people and what we think we really want out of life. It also shows us that whatever we may think about our friends relationships, things are often not what they seem.

Look deeper and you will find the cracks in almost any relationship. But its what we do about those cracks that makes us the people we are.

Even if you’re pretty sure of your life and your place in the world, taking a look at these characters, their lives, and what they go through may cause to to think twice. Still, even if it does bring up doubts and questions for you, good films are supposed to force us to ask questions and stir things up and that Helena From the Wedding deftly accomplishes.

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