Thesp Helen Hunt makes an exceptionally deft and self-assured debut as a multi-hyphenate with “Then She Found Me,” a smart, subtle and seriously funny dramedy bound to find favor with sophisticated auds. Given the blood-sport that is theatrical distribution in today’s highly competitive indie marketplace, pic will require slow rollout, savvy marketing and high-profile tub-thumping by its director-star to generate awareness and realize potential. Appreciative reviews and word-of-mouth should help, but the real pay-off may not come until viewers find Hunt’s labor of love in ancillary venues.
Hunt the auteur is well-served by Hunt the actress in the lead role of April Epner, a 39-year-old New York schoolteacher who’s painfully aware of her ticking biological time clock. She’s ambivalent about her experiences as an adopted child, despite her regard for her ailing adoptive mother (Lynn Cohen), but that makes her even more eager, if not desperate, to have a child of her own.
Unfortunately, April’s parenting plans are cut short when Ben (Matthew Broderick), her boyishly immature husband of a few months, decides their marriage was “a mistake.” (He, not she, bursts out crying during a seriocomic break-up scene.)
Frank (Colin Firth), a recently divorced father of one of April’s students, offers brutally pragmatic advice : “Don’t do anything until you’ve slept. Don’t let anybody try to set you up with anyone.”
But just when April’s life is returning to an even keel, her adoptive mother dies.
So April is all the more emotionally vulnerable — and, at the same time, warily skeptical — when brassy, self-absorbed Bernice (Bette Milder), a local TV talkshow host, introduces herself to April and says she’s her biological mother.
Working from a novel by Elinor Lipman, which she adapted with co-scripters Alice Arlen and Victor Levin, Hunt prioritizes consistency of tone and appropriateness of scale, even while maneuvering through vertiginous mood swings. Pic often is extremely funny, but the comedy always remains rooted in sharply and warmly observed reality. (A nice touch: Most of the characters are Jewish, and their traditions clearly mean much to them.)
To be sure, there’s a least one instance of casting as a kind of sight gag — Salman Rushdie (yes, that Salman Rushdie) cameos as a bemused obstetrician — but even this isn’t played for big yucks. Indeed, “Then She Found Me” is a low-key comedy in which characters always seem just one misstep away from full-out tragedy.
Hunt effectively deglamorizes herself as Alice, often appearing positively gaunt as the schoolteacher steels herself for life’s next curveball. At the same time, she conveys nimble intelligence and self-deprecating humor, winning attributes that solidify her claim on aud sympathies.
As a filmmaker, Hunt makes wise choices with a consistency that bespeaks of skill and sensitivity. Better still, she avoids predictability.
Bernice’s assistant (John Benjamin Hickey) obviously nurses a heavy crush on his employer , but absolutely nothing comes of this. And when Alice confronts Bernice about the real reason why, long ago, the older woman put her infant daughter up for adoption, Bernice’s innate selfishness is neither denied nor decried.
That Bernice remains amusing and engaging is a tribute to Midler’s shrewd underplaying of a character that could come off as a caricature. The same sort of emotional truth resounds in Firth’s portrayal of sweet-natured fellow who’s genuinely startling in his ferocious anger and deep anguish when he feels he has been betrayed. Ben may be the most lightweight character in the mix, but Broderick makes the fellow’s Peter Pan Syndrome oddly poignant.
Production values are solid for a small-budget indie.