Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Under the Influence.
A DUI precipitates the loss of custody for Helen, who has coped with infidelity and divorce with alcohol but seen her eight-year-old son, Oliver, given away to his father in the process. Not only has marriage to Dwight McCabe turned sour for the
38-year-old mother, but the most precious thing in her life has been forfeit to weakness. A crusading judge uses Helen as an example, regaining custody made nearly impossible, visitation decided at the whim of his father, Ollie’s legal custodian. This
northern California resident is in limbo, burdened with a huge attorney’s bill, consistently rebuffed when requesting visitation with Ollie, and a frequent, albeit reluctant attendee of
A fledgling photographer, Helen harbors little hope, earning a few extra dollars assisting a caterer, when she meets the charismatic Ava Havilland and her gregarious husband, Swift. The wealthy couple befriends Helen, opening their home in Portola Valley as a respite for a divorcee trapped in a one-bedroom apartment in Redwood City. This expansive and unexpected friendship is a balm to a weary Helen, who fits in comfortably with the eclectic gatherings, snapping shots of guests and a surfeit of pets, basking in Ava’s attention and Swift’s raucous good humor. The fact that Ava is confined to a wheelchair doesn’t diminish her glamour or the couple’s affection; Ava rhapsodizes over their erotic nights in the bedroom. Never questioning their motivation, Helen basks in her good fortune as part of the inner circle, the Havilland charity organization, BARK, further evidence of their desire to care for unwanted pets.
Along the way, Helen meets Elliot through an online dating service. A quiet, unassuming accountant, Elliot waits patiently for Helen to reciprocate his feelings. They complement each other, Elliot providing the emotional security Helen has never before experienced, but this delicate romantic negotiation is in conflict with Helen’s ongoing love affair with Ava and Swift. Her world is fractured: Redwood City and the companionship of Elliot on one side, the extravagant, exciting environment of her “best friends” on the other. All are people who have temporarily filled the void, the gaping hole of worthlessness that has been Helen’s constant companion since a troubled childhood. Ollie’s happiness remains his mother’s lodestar, her inability to have him a constant ache.
Dwight’s changed circumstances provide an opportunity for Helen to bring Ollie home for a visit. She seizes her chance, Ava and Swift’s plentitude a siren call to a boy on the outside of his father’s new family. Ollie lights up from the unbridled attention of the energetic Swift, Helen thrilled to give her son an experience she could never provide for him. Enmeshed in the bosom of this sparkling couple, Helen shares her precious time with Ollie, tackling a project for Ava while Swift teaches Ollie to swim. Though she finds her choices narrowing, Helen stifles warning signs at the sight of Ollie’s beaming face as he is treated like a treasured member of the family.
There is never really any doubt about what direction this protagonist will take as the road narrows, Helen adept at avoiding confrontation, rationalizing behavior, and abdicating personal responsibility. Alcoholism is the fulcrum for the drama in Under the Influence. Helen’s new best friends, the Havillands,
are overdrawn stereotypes, Elliot a mere shadow when compared to the opulent banquet of the Portola Valley estate. Maynard skims the surface of these characters, never delving too deeply, the helpless child the linchpin for emotional context. Helen’s “addiction” feels more like a plot device than a serious issue, her moral choices blatantly extreme, her shortcomings in crisis a given. The concept of such a dilemma is fine, contemporary, and familiar, but Maynard never offers any real mystery or tension, save an outrageous conclusion. Yes, Helen, the rich are different. You should have known that.