An inspirational drama of friendship, hope, and social freedom, The Help is a delicate and touching film that will have you laughing one moment and crying the next. Based on a best-selling novel about black maids and a dangerous literary endeavor in Mississippi in the 1960s, The Help stars Emma Stone and Viola Davis and hits theaters on August 10th.
The Help is a deft adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s New York Times Best Seller novel of the same name, which surrounds a group of women, both black and white, who take a huge risk to tell their stories about the truth behind the seamless lives of the upper crust living in a southern town. These women form an empowering secret writing project to bring the truth to light, and to try to make a change.
It’s all high southern society in Jackson, Mississippi in the midst of the civil rights era, with the well-bred white girls busy marrying the right men, pumping out babies and having social club meetings. Beneath their frivolous goings on, the black “help” are cleaning up after them, raising their children, and suffering some surprisingly harsh civil and social laws just because of the color of their skin.
The charismatic and intelligent aspiring writer nicknamed Skeeter (Stone) has just returned home from college. Her society friends are aghast that she isn’t married yet, and hasn’t followed the perfect example of the queen of their social circle, Hilly Holbrook. Hilly has some great ideas about how the “help” should be treated, including using separate outdoor bathrooms.
While racism is pretty much the accepted norm in 1960′s Mississippi, Skeeter is a forward-thinking young woman who remembers the black maid who raised her with love and fondness, and watching her friends treat the black women who work in their homes with such disregard doesn’t sit well with her.
Skeeter is also trying to break into the New York literary world, and she has a brilliant idea about interviewing some of the black help for a book exposing how they’re being treated. Her idea is met with some interest from the publishers in New York, but finding any maid willing to give her the real story is a problem.
Aibileen Clark (Davis) has worked hard all her life raising other people’s children. After she loses her own child and is faced with the growing horrors of racism and social injustice in the south, she decides to open up to Skeeter and take a very big chance. She’s joined by her mouthy friend Minny Jackson, and the two of them start something that becomes a force of real change.
One of the beauties of this film, and no doubt a subtlety carried over from the book, is the delicate manner in which social issues and racism is handled. This isn’t a preachy movie, neither is it a movie meant to elicit anger or to stir up trouble. It’s a gentle story of unlikely friendships and feminine courage.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments when the audience experiences outrage, or sadness, or fear for the main characters. But those emotions are part of the journey, and in the end it’s the personal stories of these women that have resonance, and the choices they make to overcome hatred with acceptance and love.
And then there are the amazing characters and charming sub-plots that give the story such heart. Skeeter is an awkward girl, somewhat of an outcast, who wins the hearts and trust of the black women she ends up interviewing against all odds. Hilly is the villain, and she’s such a brilliantly written character that audiences will love to hate her. Some might say her hatred of the blacks borders on evil, but just when you’re thinking she’s irredeemable you realize she’s just weak and frightened. It’s the lack of one-note characters, even the “villains”, that make The Help work as well as it does.
The acting in The Help takes a great story and turns it into a superior film. Stone (Easy A) nails Skeeter in every way. It might be the make-up and the frizzy hairdo, but she even looks like a mosquito (how she got her nickname in the book). Besides the physical transformation, Stone gave an honest portrayal of a woman torn between two worlds. She also proved she has the courage to play a less attractive role that doesn’t have her cute-ified and full of snappy repartee.
Davis takes the role of Aibileen, a pivotal character in the film, and gives it a subtle truth that jumps off the screen. She never comes across as being heavy-handed with the issues, but keeps Aibileen authentic and real. I would call her performance highly nuanced, and one of the highlights of watching this film.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays the nasty society princess with a vibrant panache. She’s fun to watch, and fun to hate, and just when you think her character is starting to get predictable, she provides a little subtlety. Octavia Spencer plays a wonderfully cheeky Minny Jackson, friend of Aibileen and one of the first maids to start talking to Skeeter. She offered plenty of comic relief, and a respectable openness to her sass.
Other notable performances came from Sissy Spacek as an old biddy with a mind of her own. She was also fun to watch, and brought more than a few laughs. Jessica Chastain, most recently in Terrence Malick’s experimental film The Tree of Life, played a fabulously “cheap” society newbie named Celia. I wasn’t sure how Chastain would pull off the role of a bubbly but lower class southern woman, given a certain natural sophistication in her look and demeanor. My fears were put to rest though as she delivered a wonderfully tacky Celia ala late Marilyn Monroe.
Actor/direcor/writer Tate Taylor wrote the screen adaptation and directed The Help. Like I said, he brought a great authenticity to the film, and carefully avoided any heavy-handed social message or preachy atmosphere. There was the right amount of humor, balancing with emotional moments and even some dramatic and violent sequences. He might have downplayed some aspects of the book, but his dialogue was sensitive and intelligent, and the film’s pacing (even with the 2+ hours runtime) was well formed and the story never felt over-drawn.
I don’t doubt we’ll see some buzz around The Help come next awards season. This might not be the type of movie to draw in mass summer crowds, given its radical lack of ample CGI, explosions, and trite dialogue. But The Help is one of those quality dramas with endearing heart and subtle poignancy that is sometimes overlooked, but once discovered is a certain crowd-pleaser.