Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘Raising Helen’ Gives Positive View Of Faith Community

By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published May 27, 2004

“Raising Helen,” the new comedy from director Garry Marshall, manages to combine comedy and pathos to create a family-friendly film that illustrates some important value lessons.

The title character of the film, Helen Harris, is living a carefree life in Manhattan, with a glamorous job at a modeling agency and an active social life. Her life suddenly takes a detour, however, when her sister and brother-in-law die and leave Helen as guardian to their children. Helen must try to create a new family and adjust to a very different role for herself as head of a household and mother to three children. As Helen, Kate Hudson must be, in turns, both funny and serious, and she does a satisfactory job with both. She creates a character that is good-natured and kind, if a little superficial.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how it represents the spiritual community as a strong and positive force in people’s lives. Out of financial necessity, Helen and the children move to a new neighborhood in Queens. Although they are clearly not religious, she enrolls the children in a Lutheran parochial school. The school and, by extension, the parish, provide the family with a very strong structure, support and community as they learn to deal with their loss and the changes in their lives.

The most deliberate way in which the church becomes a part of their lives is that Helen’s romantic interest is a Lutheran minister, Pastor Dan, played by the always-genial John Corbett. At first, Helen is reluctant to enter into a romantic relationship with him, and he addresses the problem directly. He accuses her of being put off because he is religious and does not live the same sort of lifestyle as the men she has dated previously. He makes no compromises about his beliefs; he is self-assured in who he is. In addition, he does not shy away from calling attention to Helen’s problems dealing with the emotional needs of the children and helping her to deal with those needs in a practical manner.

“Raising Helen” is the latest in a long line of films that depict an adult who suddenly must cope with caring for a child. A single person or an absentee parent must take on responsibility and learn the true meaning of “parenting” when he or she is forced to become the sole caretaker. Usually, by necessity, the change is treated superficially. In terms of Kramer vs. Kramer, the audience knows the adult has become a true “parent” when he or she can fix the breakfast and get the child out of the house, dressed appropriately, in time for school.

Like most films, “Raising Helen” makes the transition look easier than it would truly be, but this film does do a good job of addressing realistic problems. Helen eventually learns that raising children is more than making sure they are dressed and in school. She must also teach them how to deal with their emotions and make the right choices, even when those choices are difficult.

She is given help in her mission by her sister, Jenny. Joan Cusack does a wonderful job with a character that could easily have been a one-note, bossy, up-tight annoyance. Instead, the script gives Jenny motivation and heart and the chance to come through in a crisis. In fact, all of the supporting characters are given appropriate dimension and motivation. The children are well chosen: Hayden Panetierre, Spencer Breslin and Abigail Breslin are all cute without being cloying, and believably portray a family whose world has been turned upside-down. Helen Mirren is also terrific as Helen’s demanding boss at the modeling agency. Although Hector Elizondo does a good job as a used car salesman with a heart of gold, his role is a distraction from the main story.

At one point in the film, Helen is given a glimpse at the life she has left behind. She is at a fashionable restaurant with the kids and spots a man she used to date. This scene is handled especially gracefully. No judgments are implied about which lifestyle is better, but Helen recognizes that her life has changed immensely and comes to terms with that change. Like the children, she is growing up.