Helen Movie Review: A Movingly Humane Reinterpretation Of The Survival Drama

The segues are integrated so well that it seamlessly builds tension with each passing minute
Helen Movie Review: A Movingly Humane Reinterpretation Of The Survival Drama

Language: Malayalam

Cast: Anna Ben, Lal

Director: Mathukutty Xavier

Spoilers ahead…

Film students and aspiring writers may study Helen to understand how astutely it uses the dramatic principle known as the Chekhov's Gun. The film's first twenty minutes or so are so good that it feels like the screenwriters are using this time to scatter seeds all throughout, only for it to grow into trees as we reach the film's third act. For instance, notice how cleverly the film uses the trope of the father smoking. In a father-daughter relationship movie, it can seem like a cliché to be repeatedly shown scenes of the daughter chiding the father for smoking secretly. The film protects the redundancy in such scenes by masking it with some clever comic writing but when you notice how the cigarette and the lighter makes a return later on, you're amazed at what the writers have already established.

It's the same with a lot of the little things the film plants early on. When we first meet Helen (an excellent Anna Ben) we see how her daily routine includes her walking over to her neighbour's house to give injections and medicines to the elderly lady there. But as she goes there, we see how she not only knows the name of the lady who collects garbage but that Helen also noticed how she's wearing a new set of earrings. It's just two extra seconds during the setup, but its payoff later on feels so rewarding because of this.

The detailing too is exceptional in a way that almost every casual scene or dialogue fits into the film's larger design. Like how on a routine scooter ride, Paul (Lal) jokes to his daughter about how he lost his fair complexion working under the extremely hot sun of the Middle East. This seems like just another line, but later, when the two go to the theatre for a movie, Paul takes a seat, looks up and says 'cooling pora'. Or, It's not cold enough.

Just to be clear, the film's about how Helen, who works in a KFC-like fast food joint, gets stuck in the freezer after working a late shift. It transforms into a survival drama that works in two ways; first from the inside with Helen trying to survive the night, as it plummets to minus 17 degrees. It also works from the outside as an unlikely group of people come together to find the missing girl. The cuts, as we switch from inside the freezer to the world outside are inspired. The editing pattern gives us a false sense of relief; when Helen bangs repeatedly on the freezer's door for someone to hear, it cuts to a door opening back in her house as Paul walks out panicking. The menacing-looking fans of the freezer are then intercut with a rickety, slow-paced table fan in a police station. The segues are integrated so well that it seamlessly builds tension with each passing minute.

Yet it's never just about Helen's survival alone. The film has a wider story to tell. It talks of two different generations and how they look at each other. In an earlier scene, Paul asks Helen why a Muslim girl is such a close friend of hers. These biases are then reflected again by the police officer played by Aju Varghese who changes his stance the second he realises that Helen's friend in a Muslim. The younger generation, on the other hand, may have questionable habits, but they repeatedly deliver what's right when push comes to shove.

But Helen's humanness is what makes the film really beautiful. We meet her first as she's trying her luck to migrate to Canada to pursue nursing. Leaving her father behind to do this is established early on but it takes a particularly cold night in Kerala for her to realise what she'll have to deal with and what she stands to loose in freezing Canada. Given how we get a top angle shot with Helen resting in foetal position, are we watching a rebirth of sorts?

Aju Varghese's performance in this subtle film might take a little getting used to and a cameo appearance later on might appear to stick out, but there's little that feels out of place in this excellent film. Notice the film's prophetic opening credits sequence and how even the little creatures play a big part in Helen. Maybe also think about how her name Helen gets underlined so many times either in the form of closeups of her badge or in the forms that she fills out. Such films happen very rarely and if you're planning to watch it, pray to the daughter of Zeus that the theatre isn't as cold as mine was.

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