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An 18 year old girl called Joy has gone missing. Another girl called Helen is a few weeks away from leaving her care home. Helen is asked to 'play' Joy in a police reconstruction that will retrace Joy's last known movements. Joy had everything. A loving family, a boyfriend, a bright future. Helen, parent-less, has lived in institutions all her life and has never been close to anyone. Gradually Helen begins to immerse herself into the role, visiting the people and places that Joy knew; quietly and carefully insinuating her way into the lost girl's life. But is Helen trying to find out what happened to Joy that day, or is she searching for her own identity?Written by
Slater, Ben (III)
I saw about twenty films at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival, and Helen was probably my favourite feature. Steadfast in mystery, atmosphere, weirdness and emotional bleakness, the film follows the slow-growing obsession of the eponymous heroine with the former life of another girl, Joy, who disappeared in the local park one day, and whom Helen is 'playing' in a police reconstruction of the event.
The film has a beautiful cryptic quality, not in any conventional kind of whodunnit sense, but as regards both the elusive character of Helen and the nature of the film itself. The long, unbroken takes, great silences and restrained, almost self-effacing interactions amongst the characters generate fascination and curiosity. Is it some kind of hyper-naturalism? Or the opposite of naturalism? The players are often facing away from each other, or off the screen, or shot from behind, or just so that you can't see their faces. When a creepily patronising policewoman arrives to brief Joy's schoolmates about the reconstruction of the disappearance, half the scene is viewed via its reflection in a mirror.
Some of the dialogue is bizarre in its expositional nature, enough to prompt amusement, yet at others times it is completely evasive. Helen feels such a great hollow within herself (she has been raised in care, and her past and parentage are shrouded in mystery) that her vocalisation mostly consists of dull murmured statements. The strongest indication that some of the weirdness is in droll taste is an amusing scene in which a morose-looking teacher appears to do the worst job in the world in trying inspire the students with talk of 'blue skies thinking'.
The film is framed by metronomically perfect editing, fades to black, abstraction-making shots of dappled light filtering through park trees and a glacial ambient score. It reminded me at times of David Lynch in its poetic design. It offers a unique vision of a situation which opens onto multiple mysteries, most importantly the mystery of what is inside Helen, played with supernatural understatement by Annie Townsend. And it is emotionally confronting, with some moments that are very difficult to bear. This is beautiful cinema.
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