Helen is an unconventional film—fairly slow, quiet, thoughtful, minimal action, no clear resolution to the storyline. It mostly held my interest. I’d say it’s worthwhile, but I wouldn’t rank it high, and I doubt many mainstream moviegoers would like it at all.
Helen is an Irish college student. I get the impression it’s more on the level of a community college, or a school for working class folks. Or if it’s a university, she at least is of a lower socioeconomic class than most university students.
We gradually find out more about her and her background over the course of the movie. Evidently she has been raised in an institution, some kind of orphanage (it’s called a “care home,” which I guess is a British or Irish term, but I spent a short time on Google trying to learn more about the term and didn’t find much). Perhaps she also spent time in foster homes, I don’t know, but apparently she was given up by her birth parents early if not at birth, and she was never adopted.
She is a shy, quiet, meek, unfailingly polite, girl, who keeps to herself and is significantly less developed socially than most people her age. I could imagine a character describable that way as being brooding or possibly concealing something dark and damaged within her that could manifest in evil or violence, but that isn’t how she comes across to me. She seems like a gentle person who is probably more kind than not, albeit not someone who is going to take the initiative in acting on that kindness (because her timidity makes her disinclined to take initiative in general).
Early on she is shown at work (in addition to being a student, she works as a maid), where she has a conversation with an immigrant co-worker. Helen asks her about being homesick and about whether she intends or expects to return to her home country. The woman responds that she has taken the opportunity by coming to a new country to build such a new life—not just in the sense of the externals, like acquiring new job skills and experiences, developing a new circle of friends, etc., but in the sense that she herself has become vastly different—that she would no longer fit back where she came from, no longer have a place in those relationships and that environment. There’s really nothing for her to go back to, she indicates, at least nothing that the current version of her would experience as “home.”
And I think that exchange kind of lays the foundation for the theme of the movie. Helen, influenced in part by this conversation, comes to see herself as something of a blank slate, or at least has some tentative attraction to the notion that she is such, and that it is pretty much on her to create herself and her future rather than simply following through on the person she already is and the path she is already on.
Now, it’s not obvious all along that that’s the main theme of the movie. Helen’s situation is embedded in a potential mystery involving a student at the same college who has disappeared and presumably was abducted and murdered, and certainly the more conventional direction for this film to take would have been to become a whodunit about the victim’s disappearance. But I see the crime story as context for Helen’s story, rather than itself being the central story of the film.
The police come to Helen’s school to recruit volunteers to participate in a dramatization of what is known about the actions of the missing girl on the night in question, to be shown on TV in the hopes that it will solicit clues from viewers. Helen is chosen for the part of the girl.
You’d think this dramatization would be something that could be shot in a day or so (unless they’re doing some elaborate background about her life prior to the disappearance or something, but there’s no indication of that), yet it feels like it’s in process forever.
It’s hard to say for sure, though, because the movie doesn’t so much follow the making of that dramatization film—there’s really quite little about the details of that—but more what effect participating in it has on Helen.
More and more she puts herself in the missing girl’s shoes, imagines herself living her life. She meets the girl’s parents, who are now missing a daughter and who reach out to her and seem in a modest way to be offering to take a vaguely parental interest in her life. She meets the victim’s boyfriend. She takes to walking in the area where the girl disappeared. She speaks aloud at times, addressing the girl. There are some scenes of her more or less taking the place of the missing girl and living her life for her that are pretty clearly taking place in her imagination, and some that are ambiguous as to whether they are real or imaginary.
Is it a matter of method acting, of doing all this so that she can better portray the girl in the dramatization? It mostly doesn’t feel like that. Is she investigating the crime herself; is she one of those amateurs who becomes obsessed with an unsolved crime and thinks she’s the one destined to crack the case? It never really feels like that either. Is the movie building up to Helen’s story and the girl’s story intersecting in the sense of her turning out to have had something to do with the victim’s disappearance? It mostly doesn’t seem like that kind of movie, though I suppose it could be headed that way.
A somewhat more likely possibility is that it is a study of mental illness, that Helen is going to become so obsessed with the missing girl that eventually she’ll be unable in her mind to distinguish between herself and the object of her obsession (which puts me in mind of a classic The Drew Carey Show episode with David Cross playing a guy who develops an obsession with becoming Drew).
But mostly that doesn’t fit the feel of the movie and the characters either. As I say, she doesn’t come across as some creepy, insane, potentially dangerous person. I suppose that could be intentional so as to make it more of a surprise if that’s how things turn out, but this just isn’t a conventional mystery or thriller like that.
I think the idea is that it all fits in with her being uncertain of who she is and who she wants to become. Offered an opportunity when she turns 18 to view the files that contain what information exists as to her life before she came to the orphanage or whatever this institution is, such as her parents’ identity, she turns it down, for a time at least. I think right now she’s fine being a blank slate. She isn’t focused on her past self or even her present self so much as what she wants her future self to be.
And I think what’s happening with her involvement in the dramatization is she’s toying with the notion of stepping into the missing girl’s shoes in real life. Not so much as a mental illness thing, but more like if, say, a person was really struggling to write a novel where the main problem was getting it started, and then they were given the first two chapters of a promising novel that someone else had written but would be unable to finish, they might well entertain the possibility of simply continuing that novel.
So she thinks about how the parents seem to like her and to have taken an interest in her, so maybe she could develop more of a relationship with them where they become even more parental toward her. And the boyfriend’s pretty cute and seems like a nice guy; maybe he would not be averse to a relationship with her, since she looks something like his girlfriend, is about the same age, went to the same college, etc. With some of the missing girl’s life as building blocks, might she be able to put together a future for herself that she finds fulfilling, something more than one might expect from a timid, inexperienced, poor girl raised in an orphanage?
I think Helen is mostly about what’s going on inside her mind, and her attraction to but indecision about what to do with the opportunity of self-creation, of being a largely pastless person. (Which, by the way, speaks to me because I have always maintained that due to my peculiar and negative childhood and the almost total break I made with my past, I more than 99% of the population can say that I created my adult self from scratch. I remember reading The Great Gatsby, where the title character is described as having “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,” and how that line immediately stood out to me and made me feel a strong affinity with him because I saw us as having that in common.)