Review: "The Help"

DISCLAIMER: I do not know how historically accurate this film is nor do I care. There has been some controversy, on both racial and factual levels, regarding “The Help” and while I’m sure some of it is valid, much of the negative press seems at best nitpicky in my book. Regardless, I am here to report on this film and the story it tells and nothing more. If you’re looking for a historical commentary, I would suggest finding another review.

There was a time in my life when if you’d asked me what I wanted to do for a career and excluded all ridiculous things like professional basketball player and Will Smith’s best friend, there’s a decent chance I would have told you civil rights historian. This was a short period of time, mind you, because I soon learned that to be a historian you had to spend a LOT of time studying which was never my strong suit. Even if I managed to master the art of studying, between interviews for features on the History Channel and the extras they put on disc two of a special edition DVD that no one watches, I would have to do something else like teach History or manage a museum, neither of which held any interest for me. Still, I’ve long held an interest in civil rights and I can very rarely resist a film or book centered on this topic no matter how historically inaccurate it may be. I didn’t read “The Help” (because if I don’t stand up to Oprah’s immeasurable power then no one will) but my wife did and I kept the film adaptation on my radar as a result. My attention was rewarded with one of the better films of the year and one that will certainly garner plenty of attention when Award Season rolls around.

After her college graduation, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson, Mississippi with a new job and a new outlook on life. She soon finds, however, that she is much different from her group of childhood friends, particularly their leader, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas-Howard). Looking to make a name for herself as a journalist, Skeeter begins interviewing two lifelong maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer), in hopes of putting together a book written from the perspective of the help. In the very midst of the civil rights movement, Skeeter’s book (and those who lent their voices to its creation) becomes a hot button issue that has much more impact than even Skeeter could have imagined.

The narrative of “The Help” is engrossing and relevant. Very rarely does a film grab my attention on an emotional level as quickly as this one did. While I am a self-professed cry baby, I usually don’t have to fight the urge to weep within minutes of the opening credits like I did this time around. “The Help” is emotionally charged but in an organic way that doesn’t feel forced. Given that this is the first real film for writer/director Tate Taylor, I was a little concerned going in that he would overload the audience with fake emotionalism. That’s an easy trap to fall into but Taylor navigates around the typical “tug at your heartstrings” pitfalls with the panache of a much more experienced hand. The script is strong, providing natural moments for both laughs and tears. Taylor’s characters are extremely well defined; they know who they are and so does the audience and through that, their personal evolutions are much more meaningful. He also takes great pains to avoid the vilification of most of the white characters. What I mean by this is that it would have been very easy (because it’s been done a hundred million times before) to turn all of the white characters aside from Skeeter into vile, racist scumbags one step away from membership in the KKK. Instead, Taylor illustrates the ignorance and the cultural failings that many people would exhibit in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter seems more open minded than her counterparts and that, I feel, leads the film away from becoming a prolonged celebration of the white woman who led the way and allows for more focus on the true stars of the show, Aibileen and Minnie.

The cast of “The Help” is exquisite, almost perfect across the board. Bryce Dallas-Howard makes Hilly sufficiently hateable and as the only character in the film that is truly a bad (or even evil) person, she’s asked to carry a lot of the load. It is somewhat of a one-note character, truth be told, but Dallas-Howard maximizes her screen time and shows just what a force she will one day be. Allison Janie and Sissy Spacek are both excellent in limited screen time with Spacek providing quality comedy and Janie embodying the change that Skeeter hopes to provoke. As a social outcast, Jessica Chastain is absolutely dynamic. She brings a presence to the screen that is eerily similar to that of a young Julia Roberts (incredibly high praise in my book). Stone isn’t overly impressive but then again, she isn’t much to work with. Every time she is called upon to carry a scene she does so beautifully but “The Help” really isn’t about Skeeter and as such, Stone isn’t asked to do much.

In the end, the power of “The Help” comes down to the performances of Davis and Spencer, both of whom are MAGNIFICENT. Aibileen and Minnie are wholly different but together they form a brilliant team. Aibileen exhibits quiet strength; she says little but when she does speak, it is always worthwhile; she misses nothing and the years of witnessing the changes in the children she’s raised have clearly worn on her. Minnie, meanwhile, is filled to the brim with sass; she is quick to speak and even quicker to lash out with hilarious if truly unfortunate methods; she is hard but not unsympathetic to those around her. Both of these actresses absolutely nail their parts and bring humanity to the struggle for equality that is often, quite frankly, lost in many civil rights films. Both seem born to play their parts and both deserve the accolades which will undoubtedly come their way.

“The Help” tells a sprawling tale, though at times at times it deviates a little too much from what makes it special and becomes a bit long winded. I imagine readers of the book will enjoy the tangents (such as a love interest for Skeeter) more than I did but still, the transition from second to third act is a little sluggish. That said I found “The Help” to be bold and compelling, a human drama that pulls the audience in and doesn’t let go until the final credits roll. It shines a light on an underexposed segment of the fight for civil rights and portrays its subjects not as larger than life heroes but instead real people with genuine courage.

Grade: A-

How is “hateable” not a word?