The Help (2011)

20 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review “The Help,” I should probably state that I did not want to see it. I saw the trailer and assumed it was another one of those heavy-handed movies that reminds us “racism and prejudice are bad.” Then I was astonished to see that it was nominated for quite a few Academy Awards, including Best Picture. This was the year I made the vow to watch all of the Best Picture nominees. So, a friend lent me the film’s Blu-Ray disc that she owned and I decided to just sit down, prepare for what’s to come, and hope for surprises.

Well, truth be told, there are very little surprises in “The Help,” save for some great performances. But when the story works, I accept the film for what it is. I liked “The Help”—a lot more than I imagined. The wonderful acting, well-developed characters, and involving story drew me in. Is it telling me what I haven’t heard before? No. But I was still quite moved.

“The Help” is a feel-good tale, based on a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett (unread by me, however). It presents itself as the story of African-American housemaids in the South, and how they enabled a young white woman to write a book about them.

It takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, where slavery isn’t far off from house caring. The white women who live there hire black women to raise their children and tend to their houses, while also ruling over them with arrogant attitudes. One maid—named Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)—worries that the little girl she cares for is going to turn out to be like her boss, and it seems like the other maids think the same way of the children they care of.

The worst of these overpowering women is the constantly-condescending Hilly Hollbrook (played by a scene-stealing Bryce Dallas Howard), who also seems to be the “leader” of this society. Whatever she does, the others want to do…except for one woman. That woman is named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), and she’s returned home from school. She doesn’t fit in well because she’s not all for the other girls’ snooty attitudes, and sees the maids as individuals, particularly because her mother’s maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) was more of a mother to her than her actual mother (Allison Janney).

Skeeter wants to be a writer and decides to write a book telling the life-stories of the maids. But of course, she needs them from their perspectives. So, she’s able to find two keen participants—Aibileen and her friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer)—to sneak behind their employer’s backs and tell their stories, exposing certain, intriguing secrets in the process. All of the other maids are hesitant about this little project, until they see the confidence in Aibileen and Minny and decide to join in.

This story is told during the Civil Rights Movement and there are notions of violence rising in the backdrop. But mainly, “The Help” tells its story safe and doesn’t veer too far into being uncomfortable. There isn’t a shade of grey to be found here. There is melodrama, along with moments of comedy, tragedy, and triumph—enough to please audiences. It’s easy to see why this film did well with audiences. There’s a nice sense of overcoming for these characters.

I love Emma Stone, but her role is a thankless one and she’s constantly upstaged by the other performers. Aside from Sissy Spacek (who has nice moments as Hilly’s mother), Mary Steenbergen (as Skeeter’s publisher), and Allison Janney (who has more dimensions than expected, as Skeeter’s mother), there are three other actresses who really make impressions. The first is Viola Davis as the maid Aibileen. Davis is so forceful and compelling as this sensible woman who takes a chance and tells her story—it’s an excellent performance. The second is Octavia Spencer as Minny, who has a wonderfully expressive face and a comic wit that works. Minny is the kind of woman who strikes back without thinking of consequences—later in the movie, she strikes back at Hilly for firing her and treating her new employer like slime in a scene that. Uh, don’t ask how she strikes back.

The third, as Minny’s new employer, is Jessica Chastain. Chastain plays a ditzy, white-trash blonde named Celia Foote, who is married to a nice businessman but can’t seem to do much to please him. So she hires Minny to care for the house and cook, while Celia’s husband is at work, so that he’ll think that Celia did it all. Minny knows who she’s really doing this for and also develops a friendship with Celia, while giving her good pieces of advice and explaining why the other women don’t want her around. This leads to a comic scene at a charity event, in which Celia strikes back. I’m sorry for saying so much about the character here when I forgot to mention her in the main story description (her comeuppance doesn’t have much to do with the main story). I should be praising Chastain, as she plays the role. I really love her. Her performance is hilarious, infectious, and sincere. My theory—Jessica Chastain is an angel; she came down to Earth, made up a biography, and decided to act in six or seven movies in the past year to be nominated for an Academy Award.

One character that isn’t as effective is Hilly, mainly because she never comes across as a fully realized character. As played by Bryce Dallas Howard, she’s too much of a cartoonish caricature and only knows two emotions—condescension and shrieking anger.

“The Help” is engaging and at times, very affecting. And while the running time is 146 minutes, the movie gets better as it goes along. With great acting and a nicely told story, “The Help” is a feel-good movie that works.

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