When Grace (Emily Redpath) has her heart broken by her long-distance boyfriend, Chris (Stuart Wolfe-Murray), she seeks comfort at the home of Liv (Sarah Alexander Marks) and Edward (Louis James). Liv and Ed live in the countryside in a rural compound of sorts, far from the city and anyone who might bother them. Ed is on a sabbatical from his unspecified and very lucrative career while Liv bounces from hobby to hobby with a carefree outlook. Grace and Liv go way back, so the two are happy to reunite and spend a little time together out in the woods. Ed, though, tends to swing from charming to brooding at a moment’s notice. It’s quickly clear to Grace that something is not quite between Liv and Ed. Unfortunately, she happens to have a few secrets of her own that could make things even worse.
Help is writer-director Blake Ridder’s feature-length debut. Ridder has made several short films and plays jack-of-all trades in his productions. Some of those trades he accomplishes better than others; his cinematography, editing and direction are all pretty good and help build the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Although not explicitly about the 2020-2021 quarantine experience, the film was shot during that time with a skeleton crew and full precautions. It just happens, due to budget and narrative, to be a story about three adults living in conditions that feel reminiscent of that time. Isolation tension is a powerful storytelling tool these days.
Unfortunately, Ridder’s script is frustrating, eventually revealing a counterintuitive depiction of abuse in a way that feels gimmicky rather than thoughtful. It’s also, at a plot level, incredibly obvious what the final turn will be as soon as the abuse element is foregrounded, which makes it ever more frustrating when the film plays out in a straightforward action manner. It is built off the question: “What if this person was the manipulative aggressor rather than the one you’re intuitively expecting?” It just doesn’t take that reveal in a very interesting direction.
For what it’s worth, though, Ridder does build a tense atmosphere for the first half of the film, as the main trio dances around truths they’re avoiding at all costs. Redpath, Marks and James do a decent job as their characters even after everything explodes in a narratively unsatisfactory way. Ridder himself also appears as David, a man who stands outside the home for mysterious reasons. I was unclear if Ridder was trying to play David as mentally different in some way, so there was a little awkwardness there. His character is a prodigy of voyeuristic videotaping, though.
It’s hard to recommend Help on the merits of its story, which is a shame because it’s genuinely well-crafted. The highlight is during one of the climactic action sequences, when it’s clear how much the actresses involved seem to enjoy the breakable props and gore of it all. There is real atmosphere in the earlier parts of the film, when the sense is that earth-shattering secrets might take this quarantine-esque drama in a unique direction. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together.