Helen movie review: Nail-biting drama done right

Directed by Mathukutty Xavier, Helen, starring Anna Ben, is a survival drama that has innovative ideas backed by nail-biting tension and emotional stakes
Anna Ben in Helen
Anna Ben in Helen
Rating:(4 / 5)

Helen opens with an ant frozen inside an ice cube tray, unbeknownst to the person who placed it inside the refrigerator. An hour into the film, the titular character, played by Anna Ben, becomes trapped inside a cold storage unit. As already made evident by its trailer, Helen is an immersive survival drama that also says a thing or two about paying attention to other people. You see, one of the strong points of the film is that it's exactly what the trailer says it is. There is no misleading marketing here.

But for a survival drama to work, one has to care about the characters. There has to be something relatable about them. The protagonist here is an ordinary girl who is temporarily working at a fast-food joint to survive. A nursing student who dreams of working abroad so she can pay off the debts accumulated by her family, Helen is seemingly the most responsible member of the family. Responsibility. That's a word often mentioned in the film because it's the irresponsible nature of two men that leads to the aforementioned situation. Also, irresponsibility is a quality shared by both her father Paul (Lal) and boyfriend Azhar (Noble Babu Thomas).

Director: Mathukutty Xavier
Cast: Anna Ben, Lal, Noble Thomas, Aju Varghese

While the first half is devoted to character building, the second half focuses on her disappearance and rescue attempts. The pivotal segment of the film takes place during the night, over five hours. The use of parallel cutting and tight close-ups creates a sense of urgency and claustrophobia. There are also some beautiful examples of match cutting like, say, a shot of a spinning toy in Helen's palm succeeded by the shot of a whirring fan inside a police station. 

Helen, despite being packed with many nail-biting sequences, has its share of delicate and poignant moments as well. One emotionally-stirring moment has Helen suddenly becoming aware of a rodent inside the unit trapped with her, and the initial revulsion slowly gives way to empathy. It's an exceptionally-staged moment of solidarity that also contributes to character development. When a film makes you feel for both the human and the animal, you know it has done something right.

Anna Ben, who made a terrific debut in Kumbalangi Nights, proves with Helen that she is not a one-hit-wonder. Helen is a woman of quiet strength. She does certain things that no one would have imagined her capable of. She juggles a lot of tasks effortlessly. There is an ailing mother to deal with; a clumsy father who won't quit smoking; and an unsympathetic supervisor who takes out his frustrations on his staff. However, there are moments where Helen doesn't seem too different from Babymol (her character in Kumbalangi Nights). Helen sort of feels like a slight variation of that performance. (Well, at least they have one thing in common: dealing with irresponsible men.) I don't mean this negatively, though.

Anna and Lal bring a sense of authenticity to the father-daughter bonding scenes. Lal plays Paul as a delicate and sympathetic father willing to do anything for his daughter even if it means staying far away from her. Lal never steps out of the boundaries of his character. In one testing situation, Paul doesn't behave how most fathers (especially movie fathers) would. The only time he explodes is during an intense moment involving an unscrupulous and annoyingly narrow-minded police officer (Aju Varghese). Aju is very effective here. Anyone tired of seeing him play the same kind of characters all the time will find this relatively serious turn a much welcome relief. Last year, Joju George played a similar character in Njan Marykutty. Noble Babu Thomas, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, makes a solid impression with his acting debut.

Given the similarity in concept, the film is naturally going to invite some comparisons to Vikramaditya Motwane's Hindi film, Trapped. However, Helen is miles apart when it comes to treatment. Though the idea of the protagonist trapped in a single location is not new, it's still possible to do new things with familiar ideas. And Helen does some things that we haven't seen before. I found it to be a far superior film because, unlike Trapped, it is not told from just the vantage point of the main character but also those who are searching for her. When you're stuck with a single character for so long, things usually tend to get a bit lethargic. I find that switching between the primary, secondary, or tertiary characters and then throwing in some unexpected hurdles into their path is a much more effective way to increase your pulse rate. It's one of those rare survival dramas where innovative ideas are strongly backed by nail-biting tension and emotional stakes.

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