You may have missed Irish directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s debut feature film, Helen last year. Plenty of people did. I just caught up with it on DVD, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s certainly the kind of work that I wish was supported more often in the UK. Told at a stately pace in an understated, almost fussily deliberate style, Helen is the story of a teenager in care, who is brought to question her own sense of identity when she is picked to play the part of a missing girl in a police reconstruction of her final movements.
Beginning with the police investigating the scene of Joy’s disappearance, it might give the impression of being a neo-realist murder mystery. There are poignant details such as the officer discussing arrangements for a children’s party on his mobile phone while in the background his colleagues are uncovering the traces of an absented child, but it quickly becomes apparent that things are far more composed, arranged and organised than might be required by a film wishing to suggest things just happening independently of the camera’s presence. The camera moves slowly, sidling up to its subjects and feigning disinterest, but this seems to be in the service of a subtext of dislocated identity.
There’s something odd about Helen. It is stilted, cautious. The dialogue is stripped back to the peculiar basics. Often it is functional, expository. We know that Helen has never been kissed because she says so. We know that she has meagre ambitions because she says so. It risks obviousness, and it’s difficult to tell whether it is just stiffly acted, or whether this is part of a calculated strategy of alienation.
The adults in the film are uniformly benign: the police are soft-spoken, supportive and mild, while the teenagers in Helen’s college are placid, quiet and rather sombre. Is this a vivid expression of a community sideswiped by tragedy into a state of stunned timidity, or is it a case of amateur actors overwhelmed by the rigid formalism of the film that requires them to hold positions, hit marks and maintain the shape of the composition? Jonathon Romney’s review in The Independent is customarily incisive on this question:
Molloy and Lawlor’s long-standing practice is to advertise locally for members of the public who fancy being in a film. The result in Helen is to give the cast a subliminally nagging stamp of arbitrariness: we’re aware of ordinary people filling roles, rather than the usual sense of non-professionals playing characters. In fact, that’s one of the film’s themes: Annie Townsend happens to have been chosen as Helen, just as Helen happens to have been chosen as Joy. Yet this somehow makes for an intense effect of reality: paradoxically, the fact that anyone might have ended up in a particular part makes the person seem not just an ideal fit, but an inevitable one. This thematically rich film is, among other things, a contemplation of the art of acting: how much does an actor need to resemble, or to become, the person she’s playing (or will just borrowing their jacket do the trick)?
The yellow jacket that Helen wears to “play” Joy is as much a visual motif as the red raincoat in Don’t Look Now. It prefigures the leaves that on the turn into autumn. It matches the yellow markers that hold the places of clues at the crime scene where Helen loiters like ghost. Apart from a prologue which may be footage of the reconstruction or actually Joy’s final moments, Joy is never seen, but she maintains a presence in the pattern of objects that are left behind in the woods, and Helen tries to reconnect with Joy through these, but it’s ambiguous as to whether she wants to emulate Joy, perhaps seeking after the parental love she herself has never had, or whether she wants to carry on Joy’s life and redirect it. Inspired by her selection to be Joy in the reconstruction, Helen takes the opportunity to imagine herself in the role, showing great faith in the process of dramatic re-enactment (allegorically suggested in the college’s production of Brigadoon, in which Helen also has a role) to get close to emotional truths. It’s either a simple tale of envy, or a much more complicated vision of teenagers living surrogate lives through pretence, emulation and mediated self-expression.
Most importantly, this is a film that communicates through the studied application of form, through ambivalence and irresolution. There’s a shot towards the end of Helen outside the care home, which ticks all the boxes of a pretty arrangement of lines, colours and a tustle between symmetry and imbalance, but it is not all style: it does a succinct job of conveying the states of artifice and fabrication in which she has found herself, and hints at why she hangs around at the crime scene, where she can curl up in the true colours of the earth and imagine herself to be fulfilled. Or maybe she’s playing Joy’s death scene in the woods, going beyond the requirement that she reconstruct Joy’s movements and instead allowing herself to complete the evidence, supplying the body that is otherwise absent and providing the longed-for completeness that allows for the case to be closed and the performance over.