‘The Ocean of Helena Lee’ Winds Up Adrift in its Own Ambition

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Growing up is a difficult process for everyone. It’s a period of trial and error, where the young try to figure out where they fit in to the world. And for some children, this period of discovery is exceedingly difficult due to the death of a parent or the economic situation of their genetic forbears. With his second feature, Jim Akin attempts to explore a tragic situation for a young girl in the midst of trying to understand her place and purpose. The Ocean of Helena Lee is a film that is equal parts beauty and frustration, a noble effort that winds up adrift in the ocean of its own ambition.

Helena, played by newcomer Moriah Blonna, is a 12-year-old girl living near Venice Beach with her father Mickey (Tom Dunne). 2 years prior, Helena’s mother suddenly passed away. In the time since, her father spends his days at the beach and his nights drumming for burlesque dancers at a go-go joint. Helena spends most of her time wandering the freak show that is Venice Beach, scribbling thoughts into her notebook. This young girl who aspires to be a writer wonders big questions about the meaning of life and carries on these conversations with her father. Sometimes in travels, Helena has visions of her deceased mother (Maria McKee), the ethereal matriarch passing down wisdom from beyond the grave. But Mickey’s personal demons are rising to the forefront and are certain to complicate an already complicated life for young Helena.

The Ocean of Helena Lee can be frustrating to sit through only because you can see the glimpses of brilliance that never fully come together. Working as writer, producer, editor, and director, Jim Akin is able to craft beautiful moments of artistry with the canvas of coastal Southern California as the backdrop, but he can undermine these moments with a certain heavy handed philosophical nature in the dialogue and voice over. A number of moments in the film would be better served by a bit of ambiguity, allowing the viewer to grapple with the film’s themes, yet most of these moments are punctuated with explicit explanation. Which brings us to probably the film’s weakest part: the dialogue. It’s not that the dialogue is bad, it’s that so many of the characters sound the same. Almost everyone responds to Helena’s questions with a certain kind of sameness, as if all these people have the exact same kind of answers full of pithy metaphors for profound life questions.

However, there are a number of merits to The Ocean of Helena Lee. In her first leading role, the young Moriah Blonna does an admirable job in capturing the nervous apprehension of an awkward child. As her father, Tom Dunne brings the right combination of laid back braggadocio and a deep hidden sadness. There are number of moments where Jim Akin is able to bring all his elements together. These moments are musical in nature and Akin is able to combine the sound and visuals with precise edits. It’s in these moments that you can see the untapped promise of this film, where the film proves that much of its stilted voice over is wholly unnecessary.

The Ocean of Helena Lee is not a bad film by any means, but it’s frustrating to watch because you can see the promise of something much more complex and engaging. In a lot of ways, the film is like its main character – smarter than most but still wandering around unsure of itself, so close to maturity.

The Ocean of Helena Lee plays at The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater in Lost Angeles starting on May 8th. (More information here.) The film will also be available on various VOD platforms starting May 14th.

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