The film is marred by dueling stories that are separate, unequal
In many ways, The Help is the perfect movie about racism for white suburbanite housewives. The movie manages to take a story that should have been about the southern black lifestyle, an eye-opening tale of racism, perseverance and second-class living, and instead spends an unfortunately tedious amount of time exploring the lives of uninteresting white women. In other words, it’s easily digestible for the majority of the nation’s suburb-dwelling soccer moms — finally making a movie about the civil rights movement that focuses on white women. The Prius-drivers of America have waited long enough, after all.
The movie maintains just enough time spent hovering over the South’s history of racial inequity to give those watching the film the feeling that they’re seeing something culturally significant. At closer glance, though, it becomes apparent that The Help is a movie crushed underneath its overbearing need to fill every nook and crevice of its story with white, creamy fluffing.
At the center of the film is Emma Stone, a talented young actress who continues to show she has genuine skill at work behind her expressive face. Unfortunately, while Stone gives her character her all, the story she is given to work with seems entirely unnecessary when seen in the wider scope of the film. Stone plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent college graduate who begins working at the local newspaper upon returning home to Jackson, Mississippi. A mixture of ambition and the remorse experienced upon learning the housekeeper that raised her was no longer working with her family prompts Skeeter to begin working on a book that would expose the oddly diametric relationship between the white folk of Jackson and their domestic help. The maids and nannies of Jackson have raised a generation of children — often spending more time with the town’s younglings than their own parents do. Despite this, the black men and women of Jackson are still considered pariahs — forced to use outdoor restrooms built specificallyfor them.
Skeeter begins soliciting stories from the household domestics that reside in Jackson — beginning with Aibileen (Viola Davis), a middle-aged black housekeeper whose lifetime spent watching other people’s children has worn her soul down to a nub. Aibileen should have been the movie’s focal point — and in some occasions she is allowed to take center stage in the film. But then, just when the film seems to find its footing and delve into some genuine, emotionally honest territory, writer/director Tate Taylor steers the film into an unnecessary plot diversion — more often than not featuring the sitcom-y antics of the white socialite women who employee the housekeepers. The movie’s need to delve into overly silly, sometimes broad comedy, takes away from the film’s emotional purity. That’s not to say comedy never has a place in drama but Taylor never quite finds the balance needed to pull off a mixture of laughs and tears.
Taylor adapted the script from the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. A childhood friend of Stockett, Taylor optioned the rights to the book before it was published and found critical and commercial success. This is why, perhaps, an untested filmmaker was able to direct the film despite only having one other (little-seen) movie to his name.
Luckily for Tate, the director surrounded himself with an outstanding cast of women — all who deliver truly great performances. From Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook, the young woman who runs the town’s social circle and is not afraid to let her racism peek out through her perfectly applied make-up and coiffed hairdo, to Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, the outspoken maid whose big mouth and willingness to challenge authority keeps her searching for new jobs on a regular basis, the film’s ensemble cast is top notch.
Especially impressive is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, the pretty young trophy wife whose naivety and lack of social graces has made her as much of an outsider among the pretty little housewives of Jackson as the black families that live on the city’s outskirts.
The Help‘s biggest strength is its ensemble cast. This is also its greatest weakness too. Tate overstuffs the film with unnecessary tangents — depriving the movie of ever really finding its footing and marking out what type of movie it wants to be.
The film suffers from identity crisis — barreling between being a movie about the weary-eyed, broken down women who raise the babies of Jackson and being about the catty little personal dramas that inflict the lives of Jackson’s housewives. The two parallel themes each have their own tangents – leading to a film that spirals in every which direction but fails to hit any of its targets.
In lacking its own, structured identity, The Help has a hard time achieving the type of emotional significance it shoots for. The film is ambitious to say the least — spending great work on the production design and detail. This well fleshed out environment helps sell the film’s scope but, in the end, the movie’s scattershot story leaves the audience a bit undernourished when it comes to finding a genuine heartbeat from the film’s characters.
Just because the film doesn’t achieve the greatness it could have doesn’t mean it fails as a piece of entertainment, though. The movie, thanks in large part to its cast, is a crowd pleaser. As villains get their comeuppance and the black community of Jackson is saved thanks to one frizzled haired white girl and her college education, those that read and enjoyed the novel the film was adapted from will cheer in celebration.
The only ones who might walk away a bit disappointed are the ones that came to see a movie called The Help hoping to find a film that actually told the story from the help’s perspective.
Director: Tate Taylor Notable Cast: Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Mike Vogel, Allison Janney and Chris Lowell Writer(s): Tate Taylor based on the novel by the same name by Kathryn Stockett
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.