The key to making a documentary that will appeal to mainstream viewers is to tell a good story. Maybe this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many documentarians seem to think their only job is to regurgitate a bunch of fly-on-the-wall footage and call it a day.
“Sister Helen” tells a story. If it weren’t 100 percent true, it would be perfectly acceptable as fiction. It has a beginning, middle and end, and the protagonist is a fiery, larger-than-life character. Real life, it turns out, CAN be interesting.
Sister Helen is a former alcoholic who became a Benedictine nun after the deaths of her husband and sons. Now she runs a half-way house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in the South Bronx, operating on principles of tough love, strict curfews, random urine tests (she pronounces it “yur-EEN”) and a vocabulary far more colorful than Maria Von Trapp ever used.
Her favorite expression is a growling “Hello!,” as in, “When I tell you to piss, you piss! Hello!”
Yes indeed, Sister Helen is a character worth watching, and kudos to directors Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa, for capturing it well.
There are eyebrow-raising moments with Robert, Helen’s right-hand man and himself a recovering addict. Robert disapproves of some of her methods, going so far as to attribute them to selfishness. Ashish, an Indian man who has been kicked out of Sister Helen’s place several times for falling off the wagon, gets royally chewed out by the angry nun — and then speaks of her in nothing but glowing terms. It’s tough love, but it is love indeed: When a resident fails a drug test, Helen lies awake all night worrying about it.
Helen’s own health is eventually more of a factor than she’d like it to be, and that’s where the film becomes more than just a documentary. It’s a real live MOVIE now, with people you care about facing crises. “Sister Helen” is entertaining and moving, and Sister Helen is a saint — potty mouth notwithstanding.
A- (; )