Helen Harris lives the single, free-spirited lifestyle so highly touted by glamour magazines. By day she’s the wheelin’, dealin’ executive assistant to a modeling agency owner. By night, she goes out with male models and dances at the hottest clubs in town. As the youngest of three sisters, she enjoys a tight-knit, fun-loving family that adores her and keeps her anchored.
Then, in one tragic moment, her life is forever changed. Her older sister, Lindsay, and Lindsay’s husband are killed in a car accident, leaving Helen as the appointed guardian of their three children—a teen, a tween and a kindergartner. No one, including Helen herself, can understand why she’s been chosen over middle sister Jenny, the ultimate supermom. Still, Helen bravely takes on the challenge of building a stable, loving home for her young charges.
On the road to becoming an awesome mom on her own terms, she goes through every personal upheaval imaginable, from job loss to weight gain. As each child grieves—and acts out—in his or her own way, Helen learns that she has the strength to guide them through it, with a little help from her friends. Along the way, she becomes something all those glossy fashion mags know next to nothing about: a woman of character and substance.
Raising Helen makes a strong, positive statement about the value of motherhood and the personal sacrifice it takes to be a good parent, then lightens the lesson with lots of joy and laughter. As Helen slowly discards the trappings of the uninhibited single life and takes on the mature mantle of motherhood, she experiences unexpected fulfillment as the children begin to thrive.
She finds encouragement and practical help from her Indian neighbors, her sister and a winsome pastor named Dan. Her big city social life is replaced by a more family-friendly support system, beginning with the steady stream of neighbors coming to the wake bearing casseroles along with an old-fashioned sense of community. Her Indian neighbor, Nilma, welcomes her to the “sorority of mothers,” an invisible sisterhood that includes a fashion model mom who encourages Helen to put her children before her career.
Motherhood is highly esteemed and the children are affirmed when Jenny tells them, “Being a mom is the greatest job on earth. I know your mom felt that way.” Pro-life values are expressed as the women communicate affectionately with Jenny’s unborn baby. The grieving process is portrayed as a unique and healthy process. For Audrey that process includes precocious (not quite promiscuous) behavior with boys. For middle-schooler Henry, it’s turning away from basketball, an activity he once enjoyed with his dad. For little Sarah, it’s hysterical shoe-tying episodes, because her mom had been teaching her how before she died.
Helen and her growing parental support team respond to the children’s “acting out” with patience, humor and lots of love. Dan gently instructs Helen on the children’s need for boundaries, and the once-popular aunt follows through, risking being hated for making firm discipline choices. Elsewhere, a car dealership owner insists on creating an honest commercial.
Helen and Dan engage in lighthearted banter over religious terminology, but steer clear of sacrilege. When he asks, “Do you know what vespers is?” she replies, “Some kind of scooter.” Dan is playful and sympathetic to the kids. Helping a frustrated Sarah with her shoelaces, he quips, “Shoe tying is tough. Why do you think Jesus wore sandals?” The school choir practices the gospel favorite “This Little Light.” When Audrey is busted for making out with the school bad boy, BZ, in the church balcony, Helen warns her, “You are so going to hell.” Pastor Dan conducts a ritual blessing of zoo animals, acknowledging God as Creator.
Discouraged in the school selection process, Helen cries out, “God help me!” and is directed to a Lutheran school by the sound of church bells. There she’s greeted by Pastor Dan, one of the most likeable Christians in recent cinematic memory. Lots of charm without smarm. He responds with warmth and humor to Helen’s obvious religious ignorance, welcomes the children into his school and helps the family through various trials and tribulations. He’s even a “holy goalie” on the church hockey team. But his faith in action fails to inspire Helen to explore her own spirituality, so their eventual romantic involvement, albeit non-sexual, puts Dan on the wrong path, and sets him up to go against God’s 2 Corinthians 6:14 instruction to not become unequally yoked.
Preparing to leave a family birthday party for a night on the town, Helen strips down to a skimpy sequined sheath dress, prompting the remark, “Our little sister, a dance club tramp.” Runway models include boxer-baring guys and lingerie-clad women. A construction worker, pulled off the site for a camera test, says defensively, “I don’t do naked … anymore.” BC (before children) Helen engages in foreplay with a bubble-wrapped male model at her apartment door. It is implied that the undressing continues once they go inside, but the door closes on further evidence of sex.
Helen rejects Pastor Dan’s request for a date, mortified by the thought of making him give up his vows. Pastor Dan assures her he can date and quips, “I’m a sexy man of God and I know it!,” earning him a passionate kiss from Helen. Henry says Audrey has been “talking dirty on the Internet.” When BZ takes Audrey to a motel on prom night, a vigilant chaperone alerts Jenny and Helen. After some super-sleuth work, they find the motel, bust down the door and save Audrey’s virtue. An undaunted BZ sasses, “We’re not ready to go.” Jenny doesn’t miss a beat, thrusting out her pregnant belly and challenging, “Are you ready for this?” She then extends grace, telling him, “You’re not a bad person, but this is very bad behavior.”
A baseball bat-wielding Nilma helps Helen break up Audrey’s wild party, but she doesn’t actually hit anyone.
The total count of (mostly) mild profanities is low, fewer than 10, but their emphatic use by or directed at the children may create a stumbling block for some viewers. Henry tells his sister they’re in “deep s—.” Helen bemoans the extra poundage on her “a–.” There are a couple of uses of “b–ch.” Jenny uses “Lord” as an exclamation.
Adult alcohol consumption does not carry negative connotations in this movie. Helen orders a champagne drink called a “Bellini” at brunch with friends. A woman takes an Advil with champagne. Even Pastor Dan brings a bottle of bubbly to a private celebration with Helen, but they’re called out on an emergency before they can imbibe. A former boyfriend of Helen’s sends a drink to her table during a family celebration at a restaurant.
After Henry chastises Helen for smoking, telling her she won’t be able to take care of them if she’s dead too, she sneaks out to the backyard to light up. As she matures in the mothering process, she gives up smoking for the kids. And this favorite aunt who once high-fived Audrey on her first fake ID finds herself breaking up a party where teenage drinking and smoking are going on. At the high school prom, the punch is spiked with vodka.
Audrey jumps at a chance to watch MTV. Good intentions inspire Helen and Dan to lie to Henry by trying to pass off a new turtle for his dead one. While he may be joking, Dan says of his protestant clerical liberties, “I can date, get married, have kids, watch dirty movies … well, we’re pushing for that.”
Following the prom incident with Audrey, a despondent Helen takes the kids to Jenny’s and sends Dan packing. “I’m not a mom. I’m not girlfriend material. I’m not anything you need,” she tells him. But as she searches her heart and realizes how much she’s changed and how deeply her life is tied to the children, she reclaims them and her relationship with Dan.
As for why Lindsay picked Helen to raise her kids, she spells it out in a letter to Jenny. In it she speaks directly to the strengths of both sisters, counting on them to work together as team: “Helen will be most like the mom they lost,” she explains, asking Jenny to respect and help Helen. “After all, you raised Helen [after their mother died]; you’ll teach her how to be a mom.”
Having noted the film’s genetic imperfections—and families would do well to do the same before raising the cash needed to go see it—I can still safely say Raising Helen is a rare breed of romantic comedy, avoiding stereotypical clichés and explicit mentions of premarital sex. (Even oft-maligned fashion models and used car salesmen are portrayed with character and dignity.) And it expresses optimistic belief in the human ability to overcome adversity by banding together and rising to the occasion. Time-honored standards of honesty, integrity, courage, morality, kindness, self-sacrifice, grace and respect shine bright in the mirror of fleeting contemporary values. This is an enduring story of lives changed by selfless choices and the intangible return of investing in others. It’s also the story of one cool mom!