Then She Found Me (2008): Helen Hunt’s Bitter-Sweet Serio Comedy, Starring Herself, Colin Firth, Bette Midler

Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt (“A Good As It Gets”) makes an honorable feature directorial debut in “Then She Found Me,” a bitter-sweet serio comedy, adapted from Elinor Lipmans novel of the same name.

I missed Hunt’s movie, which is produced by the estimable Christine Vachon of Killer Films, when it had world-premiered last year at the Toronto Film Fest, and was therefore grateful to the programmers of the 2008 Palm Spring Film Fest, who chose it as their opening night selection.

ThinkFilm will bow the picture in a platform release in late April-early May.

The best thing about Hunt as a director is that she is not as self-indulgent as other thesps who become directors. Moreover, while technically the film is passable (due to lack of experience with camera and pacing), Hunt is generous toward her colleagues, and she gets extraordinary performances from Colin Firth, who’s always reliable, and particularly from Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler, who have not had good screen roles in a long time.

Occasionally, the story gets too emotional and in moments even sentimental, perhaps due to the meaning of the project for Hunt as an actress, helmer, co-writer, and person. Hunt has said that her movie is personal (if not utterly autobiographical) and that she sees the story as one about the joys, sorrows, and pains of love–different kinds of love.

Rendering a strong performance, Hunt plays the 39-year-old schoolteacher April Epner, who embarks on an unpredictable journey towards greater personal fulfillment. The skeleton of the plot is as follows: Following the separation from her husband Ben (Broderick) and the death of her adopted mother, April is contacted by her birth mother (Midler), who turns out to be a local talk show host Bernice Graves. As Bernice tries to become the mother to April she was never able to be, April finds solace in a romance with one of her students’ parents (Firth), only to realize that lifes problems can neither be reduced to a simple revelation, nor resolved by a new love affair.

As is often the case with such “Relationship Melodramas,” the movie is all about detailed characterizations, nuanced situations, and variegated moods. Indeed, what begins as a rather simple, stable life is turned upside down as the yarn unfolds on screen. A year earlier, April had married Ben, the slightly younger boy from the neighborhood, who teaches at her school. With her biological clock ticking fast, she struggles to get pregnant right away, even though the pressure puts strain on the relationship. Although her mother suggests adoption, April insists upon having a child of her own. We learn that she herself was adopted and has always felt that “something basic” was missing from her life, something that she doesnt want her own child to be denied of.

Aprils attempts at family planning end in disaster, as do all of her other plans. First, Ben declares the marriage was a mistake and wishes out, quickly. Then, just when she thinks things cant get worse, Aprils mother suddenly dies, leaving her without parent, man, or child.

Aprils life turns upside down again when, out of the blue, she is contacted by her birth mother, someone she has never wanted to meet though has always missed. Bernice Graves is everything Aprils adoptive mother wasn’t, and is everything April herself is not. A local TV talk show host whose stock in trade is “instant intimacy,” or canned candor, Bernice makes up for lost time by bombarding April with all sorts of questions and suggestions.

As friendly as April is guarded, as talkative as April is taciturn, as larger-than-life as April is life-sized, Bernice arrives like some character out of a storybook, though April isn’t sure whether she is the fairy godmother or the wicked witch.

One mother is replaced by another, and one man is replaced by another-or so it seems. After Ben’s sudden departure, April just as suddenly meets Frank, the affable and attractive father of one of her pupils. Like April, Frank has been abandoned by his spouse, and he too views romance with mixed feelings of disillusionment and cynicism but also yearning desire. Frank and April appear compatible and could make a go of it, except for one complication: April discovers that she is pregnant, the result of parting encounter with Ben–what Bernice refers to as break-up sex. Once again, life is turned upside downand rest assured, it will turn several more times before the yarn’s conclusion and end credits.

“Then She Found Me” could have only been made by a mature person, who has experienced life, its positive and negative aspects, to the fullest. In this respect, the picture benefits from Hunt’s age (44) and over three decades of acting (she began performing at 9 as a child-actress). Indeed, in its true, heartfelt moments, the movie reveals the complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities of a life lived.

I have not read Elinor Lipman’s best-selling novel but am told by colleague who have that the movie is rather faithful to the source material thematically as well as tonally, emphasizing the comedic, melodramatic and tragic dimensions of the experience of an intriguing woman, who feels she has the right to expect more from life and is willing to take the torturous and troubled path that it takes to achieve it–or at least try to achieve it.

Cast

April – Helen Hunt
Frank – Colin Firth
Bernice – Bette Midler
Ben – Matthew Broderick
Freddy – Ben Shenkman
Alan – John Benjamin Hickey

Credits

A ThinkFilm release of an Odyssey Entertainment presentation of a Killer Films production in association with Blue Rider Films and John Wells Prods.
Produced by Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Helen Hunt, Connie Tavel. Executive producers,John Wells, Chip Signore, Louise Goodsill, Ralph Kamp, Victor Levin, Walter Josten, Jeff Geoffray, Howard Behar.
Co-producer, Matthew Myers.
Directed by Helen Hunt.
Screenplay, Alice Arlen, Victor Levin, Hunt, based on the novel by Elinor Lipman.
Camera: Peter Donahue.
Editor: Pam Wise.
Music: David Mansfield.
Production designer: Stephen Beatrice.
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska.
Sound: Ken Ishii.

Running time: 99 Minutes.

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