The Help

8 Sep

Title: The Help
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Tate Taylor
Writer: Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett
Starring: 
Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Allison Janney, Chris Lowell
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, thematic material
Runtime: 
146 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
8.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 
74%

I got to see The Help after it has spent three weekends atop the box office, not to mention its debut weekend when it came out at the number two spot. Now, let’s focus on that for a bit, it’s extremely rare for a film to debut at number two and then to go to number one the next week, not to mention retaining that top spot for two more additional weeks after that, and that speaks volumes about the great word of mouth this film is currently enjoying, even getting a very rare A+ CinemaScore, and already having made $125 million against a $25 million budget. So yeah, audiences are really eating this film up. And so are the critics, with plenty of awards buzz going around for the film, especially for the performances of Octavia Spencer and, most of all, that of Viola Davis, who many pundits have as the likeliest candidate for the Lead or Supporting Actress Oscars, depending on which category she submits in.

And so I got to finally watch the film after knowing how much people were talking about it and really loving it just as much as they had devoured Kathryn Stockett’s novel upon which it’s based. And, honestly, they had good reasons to really rave about it. I mean, the film isn’t the best of the year, not even close really, because the thing is that it doesn’t go really deeply into the racial issues it presents, though it still offers up a very good exploration of them, but still, the performances offered here by every single female of its cast are just a thing of wonder, led by the one given by Ms. Davis, who you can bet your ass will be a serious threat come Oscar day.

Because this really is a very touching story The Help tells, one that’s solely about people, one that moves us like crazy, while being funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. Now, go ahead and think about how many films nowadays can combine those qualities successfully, the answer is not so many, which is part of what makes this film such a welcome rarity. It’s a film about African-American maids in the South and how they viewed their employees in the early 60’s, it’s about how they got a young white woman to write a book about them, and how in turn that book resonated with the author’s mom. It’s a very volatile subject the film touches upon, much like it was a volatile subject for Ms. Stockett, a white woman from Jackson, Mississippi, where the action takes place, to write about in the first place.

However, the film takes a “safe” approach to this sort of subject matter, because it’s a mostly comical film which makes it easier to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a film that’s afraid to show the truths, there are a couple of moments that are heartbreaking in their view of how dangerous it could be to be black in the South during that time, but for its most part the film peppers its reality with a lot of humor, not to hide that sort of “dangerous” side of its story, but to make it lighter and an easier sell, while still delivering a story no film has really tackled before, and that’s just as great. It’s just as great because of the way The Help is told, it’s told in such a way that you become incredibly involved with the characters, and that happens because of the performances here, they are the ones that get you to care as much as you eventually do here. And if you start criticizing this film for not being all that honest in how it presents facts, and for not being painful enough even though it’s arguably about pain, well, I think you’re just wrong, this is a film about reassurance, and I liked it that it was as light as it was.

Skeeter Phelan is the character Emma Stone plays here. If you’re a regular reader you might know I have the hugest of crushes on Ms. Stone, so she can do no wrong for me, and here too she’s just really good, playing a girl who comes home from college to find out that she doesn’t really fit in with her socialite friends who are firmly in the mold southern womanhood has predetermined for them, married, with kids they don’t really raise themselves (they’re too busy playing bridge) but instead leave them to be raised by “the help”. Skeeter in theory is the main character here, on paper this would seem like her story, and Ms. Stone does get top billing and is, like I said, rather wonderful, but this quickly becomes the story of Aibileen and Minny, the two maids played so extremely well by Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer.

It’s not by design that The Help becomes about Aibileen, a woman who has spent her life raising little white girls to whom she gives real love to, and about Minny, who was employed by Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly, a horrible social-clambing racist who fires her in a sort of tyrant-worthy move after a use of her house’s toilet she hadn’t allowed. It’s really not by design, but it’s the performances that make them utterly irresistible and surely enough without making much fuss about it you find yourself as engaged as you are to this film mostly because of these two.

But anyways, back to Skeeter, she gets a job at the local paper and is given the task to write about house cleaning, a job she then reinterprets as she begins to write a book about what it was like and what it meant to be a black maid in Mississippi during the 60’s. And so she convinces Aibileen and Minny to share their stories with her, and obviously Skeeter’s own understanding of these women and rage towards the treatment they have received grows as the story goes along. And look, there’s stuff in this that’s indeed totally predictable and whatnot, but I didn’t mind about that one bit, this was still a seriously entertaining time at the movies. Jessica Chastain, who’s having a tremendous breakout year thanks to this and the masterpiece that was The Tree of Life, stars as a white-trash blonde who hires the just-fired Minny to do the house chores while her husband is off at work so that he thinks she’s the real deal as a housewife, and she provides some very funny moments here, in a way that a lesser actress would’ve made seem too clichéd, but there’s a warmth in Ms. Chatain’s performance that’s infectious and all sorts of amazing.

The Help isn’t some sort of deep analysis of the Southern segregation, it may be a commercial film, totally clean around the edges, but in the light way it tackles the subject matter, there’s still stuff being told. You just look at the portrayal of Hilly, she’s a horrible person, it’s a comical portrayal, and Ms. Howard is amazing at playing her, but look beyond the funny stuff and she’s a true bad guy. Ms. Stone was the perfect choice to play Skeeter, as well know from last year’s amazing Easy A she has some insanely perfect comic timing, but she can handle herself nicely in the more serious fare, too, and she does that in some scenes here, which are then stolen away by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Ms. Spencer is fantastic, she can handle the heavy-hitting stuff and she has this sublime touch for comedy to go with it, and Ms. Davis gives a tour de force of a performance, one of the best of the year, no doubt about it, if you saw her Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt in which she only had one scene (which she actually managed to steal from Meryl Streep) then you’ll no doubt adore the acting showcase she puts on display here.

Grade: A-

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