Helena From the Wedding
Written and Directed by Joseph Infantolino
Starring Lee Tergesen, Melanie Lynskey, Jessica Hecht, Gillian Jacobs

In 1979, John Sayles made his feature filmmaking debut with Return of the Secaucus 7, an independently financed talk-a-thon about a group of college friends that throws a reunion party at a lakeside summer house, where they indulge in long conversations about life and love.

If that scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been replayed countless times in the two decades since the film’s release, both by Hollywood (in films like The Big Chill and this summer’s Grown Ups) and Indiewood (see Denys Arcand’s French-Canadian version The Decline of the American Empire and this fall’s The Romantics).

The latest offspring of the Secaucus 7 is Helena From the Wedding, in which eight pals gather together at a cabin in the woods to ring in the New Year.  The roll call includes recently married couple Alice and Alex (Melanie Lynskey and Lee Tergesen), bickering spouses Lynn and Don (Jessica Hecht and Dominic Fumusa), expectant parents Eve and Steven (Dagmara Dominczyk and Corey Stoll) and, just to mix things up a bit, a single guy Nick (Paul Fitzgerald) and a single gal Helena (Gillian Jacobs, one of the stars of the great NBC sitcom Community).  While outwardly happy, all of these characters are nursing some private pain, from career worries to bad breakups to stirring attractions to other people.  As the holiday getaway progresses, their buried emotions come to the fore, resulting in some angry arguments and near-physical confrontations.

The cast handles this material adequately enough, but writer/director Joseph Infantolino doesn’t provide them with anything they (and we) haven’t seen played out before, both in Sayles’ 1979 film and its direct descendents as well as in the work of Noah Baumbach, whose serio-comic portraits of miserable people also seems to be a key influence.  But Helena From the Wedding is no Margot at the Wedding—that film demanded that audiences to spend time with some unpleasant people and observe some extremely uncomfortable situations and, in the end, denying them any kind of catharsis or hope for a brighter future.  (Small wonder that Margot was so thoroughly loathed by many, although I admired its fierce commitment to its detestable family.)  While Infantolino tries to explore some darker emotional terrain, he’s unwilling to really push these characters to the limits of their likability.  As a result, Helena is far less challenging and, consequently, much less interesting than either Margot or Secaucus 7, which at had the benefit of tackling this premise first.  At this point, a by-the-numbers retread like Helena just resembles a repeat of a movie we’ve already seen one too many times.

Helena From the Wedding is currently playing in limited release.  Visit the film’s official website for more information.