The Help could have easily fallen flat. Here you have a writer/director in Tate Taylor who is still new as a filmmaker (his previous film only played on three screens and made less than $7,000) adapting a best-selling book about segregation in the South that seems like it was tailor written for Oprah’s book club. This, plus having the film produced under a division of Disney, it’s easy to make a connection that whatever drama occurs on-screen will be relatively safe. The Help is a “safe” film when depicting race relations in 1960s Jackson, Miss., but with performances that anchor the picture and good intentions by all involved, it works better than expected.
The story, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, involves Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent Ole Miss grad who comes home only to realize that she still acts like the plucky high schooler that left Jackson four years ago; her girlfriends, however, have married into wealth, had children and participate in the Junior League, a charity and community organization looking to improve the lives of local residents. With so many social commitments the women lean on black maids to take care of the children and do all the cooking and cleaning as well. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the de facto leader of the League, and her prissy attitude and unrestrained use of hairspray is enough to make you want to light a match and see what happens next.
Skeeter’s major in journalism leads her to the local paper where she writes a weekly advice column on cleaning. The only problem is that she knows little about cleaning. So she asks one of the local maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis), for some assistance. This single act would evolve into something bigger than a simple advice column. Aibileen, who has been a caretaker since the tender age of fourteen, is full of stories and is aware of the entire goings on around town. Skeeter, having witnessed how her old high school chums treat their own maids, is inspired to write a piece on the maids of Jackson. Considering the scandalous nature of the stories names would be changed to protect the innocent and the authorship would remain anonymous.
Emma Stone may be promoted as the star of The Help but this is a true ensemble populated with women with little attention paid to men. All the same that’s not enough to declare this is a chick flick; its subject matter crosses all races and genders. It’s easy to mistake Skeeter as the central character when in actuality she is merely a catalyst for Aibileen’s tale. Viola Davis who, in a singular scene in 2008’s Doubt, upstaged the likes of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers another nomination worthy performance. The character she plays is subtle in nature. Just the way she carries herself, able to convey the years of cooking and cleaning by her gait, and the emotional release of unburdening herself of stories of life as a domestic, is quite absorbing. Most of the story is derived from her point of view, and she ties multiple story sub-plots together.
Because Viola Davis’ Aibileen performance is subtle it opens the door for Octavia Spencer to be the showy maid in The Help. As Hilly Holbrook’s housekeeper Minny, Spencer is a little Miss Sassy Pants. Her character delivers some of the best jokes and receives the most laughs. Both Aibileen and Minny complement each other as a yin-and-yang pair, and when they are on screen together they strike a nice balance of humor and humility.
The Help is the second of five films for Jessica Chastain this year, and like her performance in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life she again finds herself in a compassionate and understanding role. Chastain’s Celia, once a socialite but marked as an outcast for marrying Hilly’s ex-boyfriend, isn’t like the other cosmopolitans. She shows signs of vulnerability. In desperate need of help, she hires Minny after Hilly fires her and prevents her from getting hired anywhere else in town. But Celia, who looks like white trash that won the lottery, is humble toward Minny. And because Minny has everything down to a routine, she doesn’t know how to react to Celia’s benevolent behavior. Especially when she tells Minny she only wants her to work Monday through Friday while her husband is away at work.
It’s fairly obvious that Tate Taylor has a way to go as a director. He doesn’t do anything technically impressive behind the camera. Still, he does his best as a writer, slimming Stockett’s 544-page novel of multilayered stories into a manageable 137 minutes. The film is somewhat longish, but the time allows for Taylor to give all the women their individual “moments” and have the audience leave the theater happy.
Don’t expect The Help to jumpstart a trend of movies about race relations. While films like To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night set precedence and shaped the mold of future racism-related films, they were films of their time and not just films about the time. The Help never tries to rise above the story of this small contingent of women in Jackson, Miss. So it doesn’t overreach trying to make a point. Had Taylor been willing to cut the script even more, it would have made for a tighter film overall. Regardless, the performances, Viola Davis in particular, is what make the film and should win over audiences with laughs and good intentions.
Director: Tate Taylor
Notable Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek, Brian Kerwin
Writer(s): Tate Taylor, based on the novel “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett
Tags: Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, bryce dallas howard, Cicely Tyson, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Kathryn Stockett, Mike Vogel, Octavia Spencer, Sissy Spacek, Tate Taylor, The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird, Viola Davis