I Don't Know How She Does It is ostensibly a comedy, a laugh-with-her romp about a crazed working mother who dismisses a pesky case of head lice as "probably just my stress eczema flaring up again."

And yet, I heard sniffling in the theater during the pivotal dramatic scene, as the heroine's speech-delayed son utters his first words, "Bye-bye, Mama." Why cry? Because he comes to life just as she's fleeing her family for another business trip - on Thanksgiving.

In the dark, I am surrounded by six women who can commiserate. To the closest, I whisper a confession: "My daughter's first sentence was, 'Daddy says Mommy's at work.'" We both sigh.

Mostly strangers, these type-A working moms from the city, suburbs, and South Jersey agreed to help me review a movie aimed at an audience too busy to see it and too self-critical to enjoy it.

Our group included attorneys and law professors, an elementary schoolteacher and an anthropologist, accomplished women in their late 30s and 40s, operating on all cylinders and fumes.

Some of them felt so guilty disappearing for a few hours that they cooked for the kids before leaving for the Sunday matinee. By them, of course, I also mean me.

'Tears for coming here'

Lisa McElroy inadvertently inspired our outing with a so-real-it-hurts memo she recently left her husband - a businessman with plenty of parenting experience - before embarking on a weeklong business trip.

"On the dental front, Abby will fight the fluoride treatment," McElroy advised in the 14-point directive that included tips on caring for the dog and the frog.

As for her 10-year-old daughter?

"She has never actually bitten the dentist, but she's confessed her deep, dark desires to do so," McElroy warned. "Distraction will be key. I'd suggest mentioning Target and the leotard you probably didn't get on Tuesday. If you promise to get one with rhinestones, she might submit to fluoride nastiness. Do not promise crop top."

Lists like the one McElroy, a Drexel law professor and writer from Wallingford, left her husband are a running joke in the movie, starring a disturbingly stylish Sarah Jessica Parker as a harried investment analyst winning at work but losing at home.

"I don't travel much," shares Rutgers-Camden law professor Kim Mutcherson, a Collingswood mother of two, "but when I do, that feeling I get from the kids is horrible."

"I got tears," adds Bella Vista lawyer and mother of two Cassie Ehrenberg, "just for coming here."

Big-screen mirror

Over fig-tinis, Diet Coke, and burgers at Le Bus, I learn I'm not the only paranoid parent who saw herself on-screen. Manayunk tax lawyer and blogger Kelly Phillips Erb says that, like Parker's character, she sinned by sending store-bought treats to preschool.

"They sent home a letter about the Christmas bake sale that said, Please make sure what you bring is homemade," she reveals. "I knew it was directed at me. So I stayed up late making carrot cake cupcakes."

The ceaseless competition and carping among women in the film troubled Farha Ghannam, a Swarthmore anthropologist raised in Jordan, far from the mommy wars.

"It made at-home mothers so horrible," she laments. "That's unfortunate and untrue."

Collectively, my amateur cinephiles thought the movie felt most real and raw when it showed the lengths Parker's character went to ensure her children didn't suffer for her success.

"Her kids," McElroy notes, "were in the forefront of her mind."

Scenes that strained the brain were too numerous to mention, but one left a lasting impression.

"Remember the part at the end where the husband says, 'I just want five minutes with you'?" asks teacher Jill Brook, of Media. "When did he have time to think that what he wanted most was time?"

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.