A lonely teenage girl volunteers to stand in for her missing classmate for a police reconstruction in “Helen,” an impressive, beautifully shot debut feature for Brit co-helmers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. With its slow pace, deliberately stiff perfs and oblique storytelling, pic feels less like a typically realist British movie and more like a European art film. That may improve its chances of further fest dates, but only boutique outfits will take a gamble on distributing “Helen” theatrically. With critical support, pic might just perform better offshore, in territories like Gaul, than at home.
Mesmerizing, slow-motion opening sequence tracks behind a teenage girl (Annie Townsend), seen mostly from behind and in long shot, as she walks through an autumnal city park into a wood, accompanied by ominous, growling synthesizer noise. In the blink of a hard cut, time has passed and a line of cops are searching the wooded spot where the girl, whose name was Joy Thompson, went missing. All that’s been found is her yellow leather jacket and some scattered possessions.
The police decide to stage a reconstruction to jog witnesses’ memories. They ask Joy’s classmates for volunteers to play Joy and her boyfriend on the day she went missing. Shy Helen (Townsend), who has been in a foster home since she was a baby, lands the part of Joy because of their striking resemblance.
Helen, who longs for a family and friends like Joy had, starts talking to the missing girl in her head. She takes to wearing a yellow jacket exactly like Joy’s, all the time, and accepts the offer from Joy’s grieving parents (Sandie Malia and Dennis Jobling) to come over for dinner. As Helen gradually begins to take over Joy’s life, she resists the chance to learn about her own past and who her real parents were.
Per helmers, most scenes were filmed in just a few takes. Thesps (most of them non-pros) were encouraged to underact, so much of the dialogue is delivered in a flat, nearly emotionless monotone. Consequently, some of the thesping of minor characters just feels awkward and unconvincing, but in other cases the choice seems very right. It could be plausibly argued that Helen’s still, taciturn manner is a result of her upbringing; likewise, shock and English reticence would explain why Joy’s parents seem so buttoned up, apart from one scene where her father weeps uncontrollably at the dinner table.
With its long takes, minimal cuts and general air of quietude, pic recalls the work of Central European helmers like Michael Haneke and Barbara Albert, especially since its conclusion is so open-ended. Script and helming style also brings to mind the early films of Atom Egoyan up to “Exotica” (which also centered around a missing child), especially given the focus on dysfunctional families, role-playing and loneliness, as well as the vagueness of the film’s setting.
Locations used are scattered around the British Isles, and thesps speak in a range of accents, from Newcastle to Ireland to Standard Pronunciation.
Some auds, particularly in Blighty, might find “Helen’s” portentousness outright pretentious, but Molloy and Lawlor, who previously made a cycle of nine similarly styled shorts, collectively known as the “Civic Life Series,” are to be applauded for taking formal risks here.
Widescreen lensing, credited to Ole Birkeland (who shot the recent “Ruby Blue” as well as Molloy and Lawlor’s award-winning short “Who Killed Brown Owl”) looks breathtaking with its rich colors and austere, painterly compositions. Sound design reps another standout element.