Pic is likable enough, but never really distinctive in character delineation, tone, atmosphere or plotting.

Jenna Fischer’s sweetly addled appeal holds the center in indie feature “A Little Help,” from veteran sitcom writer-producer Michael J. Weithorn. This tale of a Long Island dental hygienist dealing with various family crises is likable enough, but never really distinctive in character delineation, tone, atmosphere or plotting. Additional cast names and overall appeal signal the pic will do best at smallscreen destinations, where it will look more like a diverting if unmemorable showcase for some recognizable talent than a nice-try stab at a”Little Miss Sunshine”/”Waitress”-type dramedy that falls short.

An individual who perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to wield a steel pick inside a stranger’s open mouth, Laura (Fischer) is introduced losing it during a patient’s routine cleaning. Communication has seriously broken down with possibly unfaithful husband Bobby (Chris O’Donnell), as well as with their chubby, angry 12-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky).

When Bobby dies suddenly, vultures — unfortunately, nearly all blood relations — swoop in. Laura’s eternally scolding mother (Lesley Ann Warren), egomaniacal ex-sports-reporter dad (Ron Liebman) and virulently resentful sister (Brooke Smith) force her to support an aggressive litigator’s (Kim Coates) malpractice suit against the doctor who perhaps misdiagnosed Bobby because Bobby withheld key info.

Already self-medicating with Budweiser 12-packs, Laura is ill prepared to deal with these and other crises. Not least among them is Dennis’ decision to fit in at a new private school(funded by Grandma) by informing classmates his dad died a 9/11 first-respondent firefighter hero.

Laura’s only supporters, it seems, are the stoner brother-in-law (Rob Benedict) who’s transparently loved her since junior high — albeit not that Laura noticed — and the brother-in-law’s gifted teenage guitar-hero son (Zach Page) he’s trying to protect from excess spousal interference.

Initially relatable, “A Little Help” grows more rudderlessly contrived until its wan fadeout. Still, the performers remain enjoyable to the varying degrees that their roles aren’t emotional caricatures. Landing on the high end of that scale are Fischer and Benedict, whose scenes together have psychological nuance in a dynamic that recalls Ellen Page and Jason Bateman in “Juno.” Other thesps are expert in undercooked roles.

Packaging is conventionally slick.

A Little Help

Production

A Secret Handshake Entertainment production in association with Hanley Prods. Produced by Joe Gressis, Dena Hysell, Michael J. Weithorn. Directed, written by Michael J. Weithorn.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-DigiBeta), Tom Harding; editor, Joe Gressis; music, Austin Wintory; original songs, Jakob Dylan; music supervisor, Liz Gallacher; production designer, Kelly McGehee; set decorator, Kelley Burney; costume designer, Jenny Gering; sound (Dolby Digital), Antonio Arroyo; supervising sound editors, Steven Cahill, Richard B. Larimore; re-recording mixers, Samuel Lehmer, Cahill; line producer, Sirad Balducci; second unit director, Manny Silverio; second unit camera, Dan Stilling; associate producer/assistant director, Glen Trotiner; casting, Richard Pagano. Reviewed at San Francisco Independent Film Festival, Feb. 8, 2011. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Jenna Fischer, Chris O'Donnell, Rob Benedict, Daniel Yelsky, Kim Coates, Brooke Smith, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Leibman, Zach Page, Arden Myrin, Aida Turturro, Michelle Hurst.
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