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Helena From the Wedding -- Film Review

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MONTREAL -- A high point at this year's Montreal World Film Festival, the wise, luminous low-budget comedy "Helena From the Wedding" is a remarkably surefooted directorial debut for former producer Joseph Infantolino. Revolving around a married couple's New Year's Eve party, the film digs into well-trodden ground -- the yuppie ensemble piece -- and comes up with a portrait of romantic restlessness so sharply observed you almost feel like you're watching something totally original.���

The film is not, in fact, particularly original; its subjects of existential anxiety and the unspoken disappointments of married life have been examined ad nauseum on the big and small screens, page and stage. But "Helena From the Wedding" is written, directed, and played with such verve and deep, unshowy feeling that its insights on these tried-and-true themes come through with rare and startling clarity.

The film, though not hugely ambitious in narrative or stylistic terms, will need good reviews and word-of-mouth to have a shot at solid box office returns in its limited release starting in New York in November.

"Helena From the Wedding" opens on Alex and Alice (Lee Tergesen and Melanie Lynskey), a wholesome-looking couple in their late 30's, driving to their upstate New York cabin to host a New Years Eve weekend gathering. Alex and Alice have been married less than a year, but have the comfortable, slightly bored rapport of people who have been together for years.

Their friends who arrive for the occasion don't seem as stable: Recently separated Nick (Paul Fitzgerald) has taken to dating much younger women; Don (Dominic Fumasa) and Lynn (Jessica Hecht) alternate between explosive bickering and passionate sex; Eve (Dagmara Dominczyk) and Steven (Corey Stoll) are expecting a baby, but can't seem to stand each other.

The wild card is Eve's friend Helena (Gillian Jacobs), a beautiful model with an English accent and no boyfriend in tow. Helena, of course, will be the catalyst that causes already-brewing problems to bubble to the surface.

Nothing drastic happens in "Helena From the Wedding": a few meals, lots of drinks, some clumsily ingested drugs, a failed hunting excursion, a cigarette run. Indeed one of the movie's accomplishments is to convey currents of unease, longing and need among these people without the usual climaxes or big "moments." Writer-director Infantolino instead uses silence and body language to show how the presence of other people brings out cracks in even stable romantic relationships.

As Alex develops a fixation on Helena, and Alice takes note, Tergesen and Lynskey show us minor flashes of terror -- fleeting attacks of doubt, loneliness and jealousy -- that they brush off with brisk smiles and kisses. One scene during which Alex watches from the sidelines as his tipsy wife dances with their friends is a quietly devastating image, at once sad and hopeful, of a man grappling with conflicted feelings toward his life.

The actors form a seamless ensemble, but "Helena From the Wedding" belongs to leads Tergesen (known for his role on HBO's "Oz") and Lynskey (recently in "Up in the Air"). One of the film's pleasures is watching the two gradually bring initially bland characters into focus, slowly revealing idiosyncracies and buried emotions much the way mild-mannered people like Alex and Alice would in real life.

Rather than the feverish, self-consciously witty dialogue we've grown to expect from this type of movie, the screenplay is relatively spare, full of small talk, slightly awkward lulls and revelations delivered casually. Infantolino has a finely tuned ear for the way friends and lovers gently lie to each other, as well as how they sound when they tiptoe toward truth. He turns scenes which could have been corny -- heart-to-hearts between childhood buddies, one of the guys making a pass at Helena, two guests nearly coming to blows -- into surprising moments of grace and humor.

Infantolino works in a visually modest register with hand-held camerawork and natural light. He moves between characters deftly and choreographs their crises with a light touch, even when the action leans toward bedroom farce. Purposeful use is made of the cabin interior as a space of chaos where everyone strains to keep up appearances, while the snow-covered exterior becomes a place for release and confidences.

"Helena From the Wedding" is an unassuming piece of work. Yet as a snapshot of a specific moment in life that some see as a last chance to soul search, mess up and make changes before settling down for good, it has staying power. It may be a small film, but it finds big things to say about people measuring their own happiness and the futility of doing so. Most importantly, it feels full of both the ache and the joy of real life.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival (Film Movement)
Production companies: Beech Hill Films
Cast: Lee Tergesen, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Fitzgerald, Gillian Jacobs, Dominic Fumusa, Corey Stoll, Jessica Hecht, Dagmara Dominczyk
Director: Joseph Infantolino
Screenwriter: Joseph Infantolino
Producer: Alexa L. Fogel, Brendan Mason
Director of photography: Stephen Kazmierski
Production designer: John Bonafede
Costume designer: Natasha Noorvash
Editor: Jennifer Lilly
No rating, 89 minutes