Thursday, August 25, 2011

Movie Review: The Help

The Help ** ½  
Directed by: Tate Taylor.
Written by: Tate Taylor based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.
Starring: Emma Stone (Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan), Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark), Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook), Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson), Jessica Chastain (Celia Foote), Ahna O'Reilly (Elizabeth Leefolt), Allison Janney (Charlotte Phelan), Anna Camp (Jolene French), Chris Lowell (Stuart Whitworth), Cicely Tyson (Constantine Jefferson), Mike Vogel (Johnny Foote), Sissy Spacek (Missus Walters).

The Help not only takes place in the 1960s, but feels like it was made then. It presents a view of race relations not that far away from films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But while Stanley Kramer’s film, about two good liberal white parents who have their ideals tested when their daughter brings home a black doctor to marry, has aged quite a bit in the 40 years since it was made, it can be forgiven for its simple view on the basis of when it was made. In 1967, it was rather remarkable that Hollywood was even making a film about inter racial marriage at all. The Help has no such excuse working in its favor. It presents Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s in a light that bears little resemblance to reality. Most of the white people in the movie are good hearted and not really racist, but simply too scared to stand up to the racists in the city. The one real racist in the film is presented in such a cartoon like manner, that it pretty makes it easy to dismiss her racism as ridiculous. The reality was undoubtedly much darker than it is presented here. And yet, having said all of that, I must admit that The Help is filled with great performances - every performance in the film is actually quite good - and is also entertaining in its way. If you are able to look past the simplicity of what is being presented, it quite possible to like The Help quite a bit.

The film stars Emma Stone as Skeeter, a woman who has just graduated from Ol’ Miss, and has returned to her small town and got a job writing a cleaning column in the local paper. It isn’t what she wants to do, but a way to build her resume so that a New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) will hire her. She quickly falls back in with her old friends - most of whom also went to Ol’ Miss, but left to get married. They play bridge, and judge everyone around them. This group is controlled by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is tiring to pass a law that requires every white house to install a separate bathroom for the black help. They carry different diseases after all. Even though Skeeter thinks this is ridiculous, she doesn’t speak up. But she does something else. She convinces Aibileen (Viola Davis), the maid of one of her friends, to grant her a series of interviews on how the black help sees their white employers. She wants more interviews, but despite the fact she promises not to reveal their names, no one steps up. Not even Minny (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen’s best friend, who certainly has some stories. She was employed for years by Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), who treated her kindly, but has started to go senile, so now works for her daughter - Hilly Holbrook.

We all know what will happen - the preview gives pretty much the entire plot away. Eventually, the maids of Jackson will stand up and grant Skeeter the interviews she wants, and the resulting book, published anonymously, becomes a best seller and creates a scandal. But everything works out for all the “good” people in the movie, while Hilly gets humiliated - again and again and again.

As I mentioned off the top, the performances in The Help are all quite good. Despite the fact that she has the lead role, Emma Stone has remarkably little to do - she reacts more than drives the plot. Most of the time, she reacts with quiet outrage and disbelief at what she is being told - whether it by the maids, her “friends”, or her mother (Allison Janney). But she does a very good at what she is asked to do. Despite the fact that she is essentially playing a cartoon character racist, Bryce Dallas Howard is excellent as Hilly Holbrook. With her helmet of red hair, and her obsession with appearances and perfection, she fits the role perfectly, and she does an excellent job at being a character you love to hate. Out of the white characters however, the best performance may well belong to Jessica Chastain, who is quietly building up quite a resume with her work here, in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and the upcoming The Debt (playing a young Helen Mirren). What’s even more impressive is that all of her characters are completely different, and she disappears into the roles. If I hadn’t known it was her, I think I would have spent half the movie trying to figure out who she is was. Here, she plays a woman trying her best to be a good housewife, but it’s made hard because of her numerous miscarriages, her complete lack of ability in the kitchen and the fact that she is outcast among the other housewives because she dared to marry Hilly’s ex-boyfriend who she was still in love with. Her character is obviously modeled after Marilyn Monroe, and Chastain does the role justice. In small roles, Allison Janney and especially Sissy Spacek are quite good.

But the real stars of the movie are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as Aibileen and Minny, the two maids who start the whole ball rolling with their bravery. Despite the fact that in many ways The Help is simplistic, these two create realistic, sympathetic and ultimately heartbreaking characters, Many black actresses may have balked at playing a maid - it’s all too old Hollywood Mammy - these two embraced their roles, and made them come to life. The two women are different, nursing different heartbreaks in different ways, but when the movie focuses on them, it is at its best.

Ultimately, I’m not quite sure what to make of The Help. Personally, I think we should have moved beyond simplistic race relations stories like this decades ago, and yet within its own limitations, The Help is an effective film that showcases some great performances. So I guess, if the movie sounds interesting to you, you should probably see it. But if you want something more realistic, than you can skip it.

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