This post includes some spoilers.
When 18-year-old Joy goes missing, the police decide to film a reconstruction of her last moments. They plan on showing it on TV in the hopes of jogging people's memories. Out of several volunteers, they select Helen, a girl who attended Joy's school, as the best stand-in for Joy.
I'm not sure if the police ever actually do the reconstruction, but they do walk Helen through what she'll be doing. All she'll really have to do is wear the clothes Joy was wearing, including a bright yellow jacket, and walk where they tell her to walk. Helen goes further, however, visiting Joy's parents after they invite her over with a promise of helping her with her math studies (Joy was good at math), looking around Joy's house, and getting to know Joy's boyfriend.
Eventually, Helen, who lives in a care home (foster care? some sort of orphanage-like institution?), decides that she would like to know more about herself.
This movie does not end in a satisfying way. There is no payoff. All those many quiet scenes did not culminate in anything I could comfortably call an ending.
I figured, based on the movie's Netflix categorization (“dark, understated”), that it would be pretty slow-moving. I was willing to see where it would go, and it started off with some very promising moments. Ten minutes in, I was crying because Joy's mother asked to be able to touch Joy's jacket, which was in an evidence bag. When the police officer gave it to her, she breathed in Joy's scent as her husband watched and the officer gave her as much privacy as possible by focusing his attention elsewhere.
I had some suspension of disbelief issues when it came to the police's idea to do a reconstruction they could televise. Supposedly, time was of the essence, but I never saw that in the way anyone acted. I don't know if the reconstruction was ever finished during the course of the movie, but it seemed to take ages: Helen was fitted for replicas of the clothing Joy was wearing, on another day an officer talked her through what she'd be doing, and, in the midst of all of this, Helen had plenty of time to go by and visit Joy's parents and her boyfriend. Were the police doing anything else to try to find Joy? Wouldn't their time and money have been better spent doing those other things?
Still, okay, whatever, I decided to accept that this reconstruction was happening. Then Helen, who had the least amount of screen presence I've ever seen in a main character, started acting really creepy. Whereas another girl in her situation would probably have felt awkward about taking Joy's parents up on their offer to have her over and help her out with her math, Helen thought it would be a good idea to stop by. She thought Joy's parents would like it. She enjoyed her time at their place, even though Joy's father burst into tears while he was explaining a math problem to her.
Dinner at their place would have been, to most people, like dining on cardboard smothered in wet glue. Helen, while she was there, found the time to peek into Joy's room and swipe one of her old baby pictures. It was painful, watching Helen be around Joy's parents. I wanted them far away from her – I couldn't fathom how her presence could possibly help them, and I could think of plenty of ways it could hurt them. I wanted to smack Helen for wearing the replica of Joy's jacket everywhere, with not a single thought to what it might be doing to anyone who saw her who knew Joy.
Another girl in Helen's position wouldn't have even thought to go meet with Danny, Joy's boyfriend. Helen met with him quite a few times and, during one of their later meetings (maybe their second meeting?), she turned the conversation towards kissing. It was indicated that Helen and Danny kissed, and that they might then have had sex.
You know, Danny creeped me out, too. No, he and Joy hadn't been dating long, but, even so, it was creepy as heck that he seemed to think nothing of offering to kiss Helen, meeting with her, and telling her “I love you” when she asked him to. I assumed the movie was working towards an ending in which Helen thought of herself as the new Joy, Danny turned out to be Joy's killer (it's never made clear whether Joy is alive or dead), and Danny finally killed Helen, the new Joy.
None of that happened. Viewers are never shown the reconstruction. Joy's fate is never shared. Nothing happens to Helen, except that she agrees to look over her files and finds out what happened to her own parents. None of what she finds out is a huge revelation – it's just another slow, quiet, sort-of-sad moment in an unrelentingly slow, quiet, sort-of-sad movie. Joy had a life, even though it wasn't necessarily as perfect as Helen imagined it was. Helen doesn't even have dreams, other than to go someplace else, somewhere she can start a new life.
Had the movie had an actual ending, I might have felt more positively about it. As it was, I think I wasted an hour and 15 minutes of my time.
- Meet Joe Black (live action movie) - The only other thing I could think of that was as slow and quiet as Helen. Other than that, though, this movie isn't really all that much like Helen - it's about Death, who takes human form and falls in love.
- Perfect Blue (anime movie) - Another unsettling movie that looks at, among other things, identity, but this one as least has an ending. A warning: it's more violent and disturbing than Helen.