In many respects Helen Hunt’s directorial debut is a familiar sort of romantic comedy. But it differs from most examples of the genre by being genuinely clever and amusing. Maybe that’s because “Then She Found Me” is a modest production rather than a bloated Hollywood extravaganza. Or it may just be that Hunt is remarkably astute in her triple-threat role as co-adapter (of a novel by Elinor Lipman), helmer and star. Whatever the explanation, this is the rare date movie you shouldn’t be embarrassed to go to—though, to be fair, it’s really a date movie for the older set; the characters here aren’t horny college kids or twenty-something slackers in the Judd Apatow mold—they actually have jobs and wrinkles.
Primary among them is April Epner (Helen Hunt), a New York City schoolteacher in her late thirties who’s anxious to have a child with her new momma’s-boy husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) even while she struggles to care for her ill but still demanding adoptive mother Trudy (Lynn Cohen). Unfortunately, Ben abruptly asks for a divorce and Trudy dies.
It’s at this point of emotional turmoil that two things happen. April finds herself strangely attracted to Frank Harte (Colin Firth), the rumpled, ill-tempered divorced dad of one of her students. And local television talk-show host Bernice Graves (Bette Midler) shows up claiming to be her birth mother.
From here the trajectory of “Then She Found Me” is nothing if not predictable. You know full well that though April and Bernice will have their rough patches, they’ll eventually bond. And you know that though April and Frank will have theirs, they’ll wind up together, too. But in both cases getting there proves quite enjoyable. Hunt walks a fine line between comedy and drama, and while Midler can come on a bit strong at times, by and large her larger-than-life persona fits the role, and she and Hunt spar off one another nicely. Firth’s alternately sullen and charming take on Frank is consistently winning. The character is also blessed with two of the more likable tykes to appear on screen in a long time—kid actors Daisy Tahan and Tommy Nelson—and under Hunt’s sensitive direction they give natural, unaffected performances.
There are excellent supporting turns, too. Broderick’s wimpy quality is a perfect fit for Ben, and Ben Shenkman is nicely laid-back as April’s brother (though Cohen is permitted to take the Jewish mother stereotype pretty far). John Benjamin Hinkey also gets a few good moments as Bernice’s obsessively supportive assistant. Even a cameo by novelist Salman Rushdie as April’s doctor isn’t overly milked; it’s still a stunt, of course, but doesn’t come across as a crude one.
From the technical perspective there’s nothing special about the movie, but Peter Donahue’s cinematography makes solid use of the New York locations, and the other behind-the-camera contributions are more that adequate.
But the success of “Then She Found Me” ultimately belongs to Hunt, for whom it was an obvious labor of love. It suggests that the best course for actresses no longer sought for the sort of romantic comedies made by the studios nowadays (those in the raunchy Judd Apatow mold, or worse) might just be wise to do it themselves. This little movie may itself be hard to find, but it’s worth a search.