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Starting Over 

I am mystified about why we have seen so little of Helen Hunt since her Best Actress Oscar for As Good as It Gets way back in 1997. Since then she's appeared in only a half dozen films, and her performance in What Women Want was the only conventional lead. One answer, I suspect, is the full-blown emergence of Laura Linney, who has shined in a series of roles, You Can Count on Me and The Savages, for instance, that might well have been played by Hunt. But, of course, the real answer lies in the dearth of serious dramatic roles for women, period. There ought to be plenty of quality work to keep Linney and Hunt both fully engaged. But there isn't, as many have complained previously. It is interesting, then, that Hunt returns now in a film that she both produced and directed. Based on the novel by Elinor Lipman and written for the screen by Alice Arden and Victor Levin, Then She Found Me is a complicated story that moves forward on two interwoven narrative fronts, one-part romantic drama, one-part mid-life identity search. Hunt is April Epner, a Manhattan school teacher who reaches her late thirties without marrying. Her desire to have children seems to be rapidly slipping away. Then April and fellow teacher Benjamin Green (Matthew Broderick) decide to tie the knot and move post-haste to procreation. The problem with this union is hinted at in a scene that follows the wedding reception when Ben steals April away to an amusement park. In short, Ben, who until his marriage has still lived with his mother, has never grown up. He's a nice person, but he's not emotionally equipped to be a husband, much less a father. No sooner do Ben and April marry than they break up.

April recognizes Ben's immaturity and realizes that she's actually better off without him. At the same time, her childlessness weighs heavily on her. Because she was adopted, her urgency about family is perhaps all the greater, especially now that she has lost both her parents. There is much discussion about April's adopting a child herself, and given the closeness she shared with her parents and with her brother Freddy (Ben Shenkman), I was never able to understand her resistance to such an idea. This aspect of the narrative seems more a tool of plot than a convincing product of April's character.

In the immediate aftermath of the foundering of April's marriage, two things happen simultaneously. First, she finds herself, too briskly for her own comfort, falling in love with Frank (Colin Firth), the father of one of her pupils. Frank is the recently divorced father of two who battles mightily to restrain his sense of rage at his children's mother, who has abandoned them entirely. April and Frank are so completely decent that we know they just must make it work out, but since they both have issues, the path to felicity will be bumpy. At the same time that April and Frank are trying to start a family involvement of their own, TV-talk dynamo Bernice Graves (Bette Midler) arrives to announce that she's April's birth mother and desires to involve herself in April's life. Each of these elements is probably sufficient for an entire movie, but there's more. In an instance of terribly ill-advised break-up sex with Ben, April finally gets herself impregnated. Right development, wrong father, wrong grandmothers, angry lover.

Then She Found Me probably bites off more than it can wholly digest. But it's a credit to the nimbleness of the screenplay and the smoothness of Hunt's direction that we are never lost and never hurried. The complications that suddenly assault April's life have a ridiculous dimension, and Hunt is able to milk them for subtle but always dignified comedy. The film doesn't break new ground, but it treats the dilemmas of its characters with proper respect. And the picture delivers a series of deft performances. Midler employs her sparkling eyes to give Bernice a properly daffy aspect without ever sliding into campy parody. With this role and that in Election, the affable Broderick is showing considerable skill at playing the unsuspected heel. Firth has played this Everyman part before, and he's good at it. He's a master at suggesting a character's rich inner life without having the lines to display it. Hunt is as good as we recall, beautiful without being flashy, her April sure of herself even as she's unsure of the world she resides in. That's a delicate balance, and Hunt pulls it off masterfully.

click to enlarge School teacher April Epner (Helen Hunt) talks with single parent Frank (Colin Firth) in Then She Found Me. - 2008 THINK FILM
  • 2008 Think Film
  • School teacher April Epner (Helen Hunt) talks with single parent Frank (Colin Firth) in Then She Found Me.
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