By: Trevor Chartrand
Short film writer/director Blake Ridder is on the right track with his feature-length debut Help, but the movie struggles to tell a cohesive story. This neat little thriller is tidy and simple, but ultimately falls apart during its goofy, over-the-top final act. While the film has some decent visuals and an acceptable sense of pacing and style, it’s hard to take the narrative seriously.
Help is, essentially, a story about secrets. Devastated by a recent break-up, a young woman named Grace (Emily Redpath) stays with her best friend Liv (Sarah Alexandra Marks) and her long-time boyfriend, Edward (Louis James). Noises in the night and suspicious behavior from the couple concern Grace, who begins to suspect Edward might be hurting Liv. Grace seeks the truth from a mysterious groundskeeper, David (played by Ridder himself), but Grace also has secrets of her own.
Narratively, this film is technically structured correctly, yet somehow still appears to be missing something. All the story beats are right where they should be, but the movie feels more ‘paint by numbers’ than a heartfelt story told in a passionate way. It’s as if the filmmakers were following a recipe, adding all the right ingredients in all the right places, but the dish is still mundane. There’s a strange lifelessness to the finished product, as if the piece is missing its passion.
Help also relies too heavily on ‘mystery boxes,’ so to speak, with the inclusion of a series of ominous set-ups designed to create intriguing and mystery, which instead play out in contrived and forced ways. The intention to withhold information in this film is not subtle at all. In one instance, a character practically winks at the camera as if to say ‘isn’t this mysterious, I wonder what this is about? Don’t worry, we’ll tell you later.’ These setups are clunky and obvious, leaving viewers impatiently waiting for their inevitable payoff.
Despite the nature of the story, the performances in the film are strong, especially among the three main leads. There’s a natural ebb and flow to their dialogue, with believable chemistry and tension between them all. The cast do stumble here and there, but performances overall score a pass here.
To its credit, Help also has interesting editing and cinematography, which are especially highlighted during transition sequences that take us from present day to flashbacks. Stylish as they may be, these transitions have a very ‘in-you-face’ quality to them that’s distracting enough to take viewers out of the movie. It feels more like a film student showing off than an actual artistic choice being made.
The film’s biggest flaw is its surprise ending, which is certainly unpredictable but not in a good way. That is to say, it’s hard to believe how goofy the final minutes of the film are; the absurdity of the ending will have viewers laughing, which I doubt was the intention.
Overall, this simple little film is a promising start for filmmaker Blake Ridder, who I suspect may be an up-and-coming M. Night Shyamalan wannabe. Ridder does have potential, and with practice and a little more restraint, we may see some interesting projects from him in the future. Until then, he still has some proving to do.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor