Whenever elementary school teacher April Epner (Helen Hunt) is asked the question “So, do you have children of your own?,” she takes a pause before answering. And in that pause, we learn much about her and the continuing heartbreak she feels over not being a mother.
We first meet April on her wedding day, when she and her new husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) sneak out of their own reception to ride the bumper cars at Coney Island. An edit later and a year has passed. Ben decides that married life is not for him and announces that he wants a divorce. Before he leaves, the two have passionless sex on the kitchen table, not even allowing themselves the intimacy of fully undressing. Devastated, April feels that her last chance of conceiving a child has just walked out the door. Less than 24 hours later, her adoptive mother passes away, with her biological mother (Bette Midler) contacting her soon afterwards wanting to meet her.
The only bright spot in her life is Frank (Colin Firth), a single father to one of April’s students. Although they know that they are both emotionally damaged goods, they begin to see each other, struggling to come to grips with the dissolution of their previous relationships and the direction this new one they find themselves will go. Matters become more complicated when April discovers that she is pregnant from the kitchen table encounter with Ben.
Although she won an Academy Award for her work in the 1997 film As Good As It Gets, it might be fair to say that Hunt’s work in Then She Found Me is better and far less showy. When she takes a moment’s pause before answering everyone’s question of “Do you have any children?” she says more than some actors do in entire films. Eschewing any type of glamorizing makeup, Hunt allows the camera to capture the burgeoning lines around her mouth and eyes and a few stray strands of unkempt hair. Not many actresses in their mid-40s can let go of their ego in this way. For Hunt it adds an extra level of realism to her character, hinting that there is a story behind each wrinkle. Firth turns in equally nuanced work, as an abandoned father of two whom hasn’t had the time to come to terms with the rage he feels over his wife’s departure.
There’s a sense of Jewish ethnicity that permeates the film. We open with a Jewish wedding ceremony, April prays before each meal and her family celebrates the Sabbath meal even when April’s mother is in the hospital. But in no way could the film be interpreted as a “Jewish film” in that it doesn’t really address any topics that would spring from the characters’ specific faith. April could be Episcopalian, Catholic or a druid. The important thing is that her character has faith and practices it in her everyday life. April’s faith informs her character, helping to give her an added depth not usually seen in films. It is a part of character that does payoff towards the end of the film.
But for all of its deft touches, the film does have its flaws. While Hunt and Firth’s performances are solid, Broderick and Midler’s are distractingly not. Broderick wanders through the film with a wide-eyed expression and little more. At no time are we ever given a real sense of Ben’s alleged irresponsibility. What is it about him that motivates April to attempt the quickie in the back of her car with him that happens late in the film? If the character had any amount of charm, she could be forgiven, but as played by Broderick, he comes off as a bland schlub. What could have been an interesting variation on Ferris Bueller hitting middle age simply comes off lacking any real depth. Meanwhile, Bette Midler is just her own brassy self, whether the scene calls for it or not.
In addition to her acting duties, Hunt also directed, co-wrote the screenplay from Elinor Lipman’s novel and produced the film. The script’s dialogue fluctuates from adequate to overwrought and overwritten, especially during scenes where characters are expressing their feelings to one another. April meets and falls for Frank less than 12 hours after being left by Ben and her mother passing. When somebody in real life were to throw themselves into a new relationship that quickly, there would be numerous ramifications, chief among them being everyone around that person would question their sanity and emotional stability. Here, however, no one seems to bat an eye and the movie just expects the audience to follow along.
While not an overly impressive debut film for Hunt as director, it is at least promising. Hunt’s background as an actor allows the film to shine a majority of the time it is focused on its two leads. Hopefully, if Hunt decides to stay behind the camera, she can polish up the rest of her multi-hyphenate skills.