By turns well observed and overstated, “A Little Help” is the gently absurdist drama of a thirtysomething woman’s coming of age. Jenna Fischer, expertly put-upon and yearning as Pam on “The Office,” is sympathetic without asking for sympathy in the lead role, a onetime high school beauty whose sudden widowhood lands her abruptly in the grown-up world.
Even before her louse of a husband meets his demise, dental hygienist Laura has the frazzled air of a single mother. Her 12-year-old son (Daniel Yelsky) finds nothing but fault with her, as do her overbearing sister (Brooke Smith) and carping mother (Lesley Ann Warren). Drawing a boldface line between pragmatism and messy soul, the cruelty of Mom and Sis -- written and played too large -- casts Laura as Cinderella, the good girl eyed with resentment.
Afraid of her own anger, she lets herself be dragged into schemes to capitalize on the death in the family, one of which is forced at best, the other involving a slick lawyer (Kim Coates, pitch-perfect).
Only her sweet brother-in-law (Rob Benedict) shows Laura any kindness, and their deepening bond, expressed in a couple of terrifically tender scenes, connects them to the teenage selves they haven’t quite left behind. But his pairing with Laura’s anti-life force of a sibling strains credulity.
What writer-director Michael J. Weithorn, a sitcom vet, gets right is the Long Island vibe, the New York smarts crossed with small-town insularity. If the film takes too long to reach its rather soft denouement, Fischer makes Laura’s awakening convincing.
“A Little Help.” MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual content and drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood; AMC Loews Broadway Cinemas 4, Santa Monica; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine.