First-time director Joseph Infantolino’s Helena from the Wedding begins as a serviceable and decently acted indie ensemble drama, and then evolves into material deeper and richer than what we might have expected.
It’s the story of eight individuals in their late thirties and early fourties who gather for a long and ultimately poignant New Year’s weekend at a cabin. The hosts are the property owners, the recently wed Alex (Lee Tergesen) and Alice (Melanie Lynskey). Also on hand are divorce casualty Nick (Paul Fitzgerald); the beautiful young model Helena (Gillian Jacobs), who draws Nick’s amorous attentions; and two chronically unhappy married couples: Lynn (Jessica Hecht) and Don (Dominic Fumusa), and Eve (Dagmara Dominczyk) and Steven (Corey Stoll).
When the drama attempts to travel the ensemble route by crisscrossing substories, it lulls along contentedly; save an excruciating performance by Hecht, nothing strikes one as particularly off-base. And, to Infantolino’s credit, he reveals a dexterous ability to establish the supporting characters in small and quick but telling brushstrokes that would have eluded less talented directors. But if the first half of the picture is competent, it feels for a time as if it will never rise above that. For 40 minutes or so, it also recalls other, better films and suffers by comparison to these predecessors. Helena has a setup similar to The Myth of Fingerprints, for example, but it lacks Bart Freundlich’s enigmatic creepiness and sexual undercurrents; its characterizations of soon-to-be middle-aged malcontents suggest Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, but the material lacks Baumbach’s caustic repartee and sense of irony.
Luckily, Infantolino has a hidden card up his sleeve, and he whips it out just when we’re convinced that the picture will never rise above mediocrity. The director finds emotional weight in the insecurities of Alex and Alice -- an element that draws us more deeply in as the picture progresses. We can see from a wonderful opening shot (filmed from the backseat of a vehicle, as Alex stares over at his wife bewilderedly) that the spouses don’t quite understand each other with complete clarity. That disconnect will eventually serve as the tipping point -- as a shouting argument erupts between Alex and Alice, temptations arise involving other partners, fears of infidelity lead to emotional distance, and the possibility of reconciliation between them nods its head. The most surprising aspect of this is also the film’s most mature element; Infantolino conveys much of it sans dialogue, relying on subtle gestures, facial close-ups, and exchanged glances between Alex and Alice to convey his main arc.
This couldn’t happen, of course, without two dynamite performances by Tergesen and Lynskey, who give the picture the weight it needs. Although this is their first time acting together, they have somehow instinctively developed the kind of wordless behavioral shorthand so common to real-life married couples but less frequently glimpsed in movies about them. Lynskey is particularly affecting; she has worked out a fragile vulnerability for Alice -- a neediness manifested in quietly unfulfilled expectations of spousal reassurance, and a character with such delicate emotions that even an untoward glance could bruise her. The very same qualities are evident in Tergesen’s portrayal, emerging most powerfully in the suspenseful final scenes, when he (and the audience) attain a fuller understanding of his need for Alice, courtesy of the unspoken fear that something might accidentally happen to her during a midnight jaunt to buy cigarettes.
These portrayals, and the resulting power of all the scenes inhabited by Tergesen and Lynskey, make the movie well worth seeing. In a way, it makes one wish that the writer-director had limited the scope of the picture to their marriage alone (eliminating all of the less sympathetic supporting characters). The catch-22, though, is that Infantolino uses the tumult in the unhappy marriages as a deus ex machina to draw out emotional undercurrents from Alex and Alice that we might not otherwise see -- so that without the surrounding ensemble, the film would lack the considerable magnetism it eventually attains.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: NR
- Review: First-time director Joseph Infantolino’s Helena from the Wedding begins as a serviceable and decently acted indie ensemble drama, and then evolves into material deeper and richer than what we might have expected. It’s the story of eight individuals in… (more)