A Real Movie About Complicated Families

By Rachel Mauro

May 28, 2008


April Epner (Helen Hunt), the heroine of Then She Found Me, the new film adaptation of the 1990 Elinor Lipman novel, is a protagonist to hug and shake at the same time. Within a day of each other, her husband leaves her and her adoptive mother dies. But soon thereafter she meets Frank (Colin Firth), who she describes as “the one man on Earth who’s right for me”–only to have break-up sex with the emotionally stunted husband who abandoned her.

But that’s typical Lipman–realistic characters making flawed choices as they fumble their way from loneliness to love (even if the details of the novel are fudged a bit)–and typical Hunt, who has made a career of playing similarly wise but emotionally depleted characters in films like As Good As It Gets and Cast Away. If it feels like the role of Epner was tailor-made for Hunt, it was: Hunt co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film, her first.

Helen Hunt and Bette Midler
Bernice (Bette Midler) on her knees before her daughter, April (Helen Hunt)

The issue of adoption is at the forefront of the plot. Thirty-nine-year-old April is painfully aware that she is adopted. She tells her adoptive mother, Trudy (Lynn Cohen), that she watched her with her younger brother, Freddy (Ben Shenkman), Trudy’s birth son, and “it was different” than with her. That is why April does not want to adopt a child, even though she is desperate for a baby. Her world is turned upside down when Trudy dies, her husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), leaves her, and her birth mother, bubbly talk-show host Bernice Graves (Bette Midler) abruptly and purposefully strides back into her life.

Nobody is perfect in this movie. Frank (Firth) is moody and tempestuous, Ben is little more than a grown child. Bernice, in a desperate attempt to win April’s affection, tells her that her father was Steve McQueen (in the book, it was JFK). Learning to forgive these faults is the central focus of the plot.

Bernice’s religion is never specified, but it is obvious that April grew up as a fairly observant Jew. When Bernice accompanies April to the obstetrician, mother asks daughter, “Don’t you want to pray?” citing with slight incredulity that April prays even before eating bowls of spaghetti.

April, who by this time has had a crisis of faith, has to think hard about what she wants to say to God. She finally settles on the Shema, which she translates as, “Listen, O Israel, the God of love and the God of fear are one.”

Lipman says she likes that scene because of its multiculturalism. April’s obstetrician is played by the Iranian writer Salman Rushdie, and the nurse is clearly Asian. “Nobody notices that; I would have never thought about that,” Lipman said in an interview with InterfaithFamily.com. “But talking about interfaith, [Hunt] clearly had that in mind, and cast accordingly.”

Rushdie and Hunt
Salman Rushdie plays Helen Hunt’s obstetrician

Nineteen years in the making, the film is much changed from the novel. In the novel, Epner is never married and not nearly as obsessed with having a child. But Lipman doesn’t mind–she wrote an essay for The Huffington Post defending the adaptation.

“Fans assumed I didn’t like [the changes,] and ranted about Hollywood, which I find rather annoying, because I like the movie,” Lipman said. “It was a wonderful thing to happen. I would be an idiot and an ingrate to say, ‘oh, but I’m very sentimental about my characters.'”

The interfaith marriage issue is not addressed as explicitly in the movie as it is in the book, though we know that April is Jewish. April’s wedding to Ben, shown at the beginning of the film, is complete with an officiating rabbi, Hebrew prayers and huppah. Frank’s religion is never disclosed, though it seems quite possible, given a phone conversation which illuminates his and April’s cultural differences, that he is not Jewish. In the movie, marriage is never officially broached between the two. In the book, April’s love interest is a German-American colleague named Dwight, and she worries about offending the memory of her adoptive parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. The story ends, however, at their wedding.

Interfaith marriage is common in Lipman’s novels, which have often been compared to the work of Jane Austen because of their gentle social satire and emphasis on smart women falling in–and out of–love. Lipman, who alternates her time between Northampton, Mass., and New York, defends her focus on interfaith marriage matter-of-factly: she writes what she sees. “It’s an interfaith world,” she said. “My husband happens to be Jewish, my parents are both Jewish. But my son came home in the third grade and said, grumbling, ‘I’m the only kid… celebrating only Hanukkah.’

“So, it just seems like the world, that’s what’s out there.”

But that hasn’t stopped religious people from embracing the film. Lipman remembers one encounter with a Christian woman after attending one of the movie’s premieres.

“She was not Jewish, and what she loved and thanked me for, was having religion, in her words, was putting God in the movie,” Lipman said. “For me, not being religious, I thought it was great that all faiths [might] see it that way.”

Then She Found Me is rated R for language and sexual content, and lasts 100 minutes.