A film review by Craig J. Koban October 19, 2011


2011, PG-13, 146 mins.


Skeeter Phelan: Emma Stone / Aibileen Clark: Viola Davis / Minny Jackson: Octavia Spencer / Hilly Holbrook: Bryce Dallas Howard / Celia Foote: Jessica Chastain / Elizabeth Leefolt: Ahna O'Reilly / Charlotte Phelan: Allison Janney / Jolene French: Anna Camp / Stuart Whitworth: Chris Lowell / Constantine: Jefferson Cicely Tyson / Johnny Foote: Mike Vogel / Missus Walters: Sissy Spacek / Elaine Stein: Mary Steenburgen

Written and directed by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett

THE HELP has been set up as this year’s rousing, feel-good drama ala THE BLIND SIDE.  If there were one problematic trait that the film shares with last year’s Sandra Bullock reality-inspired drama is that it’s often structured around its white character of privilege that has an emotional reawakening for the better via her experiences with downtrodden African American characters.  The “real” heroes of both of these films are its minorities and the real genuine dramatic interest is with them overcoming odds, not with those people above them on the societal ladder that have their eyes opened.   

Yet, THE HELP has many more saving graces than THE BLIND SIDE ever had.  For starters, and unlike THE BLIND SIDE, THE HELP is a stirring crowd pleaser that warms the heart without shamelessly pandering down to audience members by overcooking their emotions for a manufactured response; the characters and story contained within have considerably more authenticity.  Secondly, THE HELP may be sentimental at times, but never in sanctimonious ways: its melodrama has more earnestness and works more touchingly because of its universally strong female performances, and some of them are so stellar, so natural, and so enveloping that you are almost willing to forgive the film when it does flirt with one-dimensional clichés.  The personas that populate THE HELP feel grounded and believable, which helps their underlining story pack that much more of an authoritative wallop. 

Perhaps even more than THE BLIND SIDE, THE HELP is not so offensively skewed towards its “hero” white character.  The screenplay – based on the best-selling 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, her first work – tells a simple story about African American maids working under the domineering pressures of their largely racist white employers in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960’s, just before the explosion of the Civil Rights Movement, but also regrettably during a time during when Jim Crow created a devastating ripple between whites and blacks; white elitist privilege grew at the same rates that the black “help” did, which only exacerbated the societal divide even further.  To the women who, with strength, courage, and Herculean patience, faced prejudicial oppression everyday, the term “maid” just as well could have been a candy-coated euphemism for slave.  These women have the real noteworthy stories to tell, but their only outlet is through a sympathetic white journalist that gave them an open and understanding ear to hear their tales and let the larger public know of them. 

The budding young journalist in question is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) who returns home to Jackson and takes a fairly demeaning job writing the advice column of the local Jackson Journal.  Since she knows relatively little about what homemaking encompasses, she has her sights set on more ambitious projects.  The more time she spends with family and friends, the more she begins to see the burden and sorrows of the black help that wait on them daily.   She develops an evocative – but highly risky – plan for a new book: she will interview all of the local black maids and compile their stories in an effort to give them a voice during a time when society largely gave them none. 

Her plan is not easy.  She has considerable difficulty getting her intended subjects to cooperate with her, seeing as that it could turn the whole community upside down and make the racial divide between whites and blacks that much more devastatingly apparent.  One maid that Skeeter seems really drawn to is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a woman that, on the outside, is a pillar of strength and resolve, but on the inside she is a deeply wounded figure of subjugation and regret.  All she has ever known is a life of servitude: she’s been a maid all of her existence, as was her mother and her mother before her was a house slave.  In essence, and without actually saying it, Aibileen is a house slave too, but under a different guise.  Yet, she does see herself as something more: she boasts that she has raised 17 white children and has loved them all as her own.  In many tangible ways, she was more of a mother to them than their actual mothers



Skeeter is also drawn to Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who is kind of the antithesis on the calm and reserved Aibileen.  Minny is a real verbal spitfire that does not hold anything back, even when she knows her words and actions have overwhelming effects on her and her other sister maids.  Yet, like Aibileen, she knows that the life of serving her white “masters” is slowly eating away at who she is and who she wants to become and that her choices in life seem alarmingly slim.  Slowly, but surely, Skeeter manages to gain both women’s trust and confidence, as Aibileen and Minny begin to relay scandalously upsetting stories of their lives as maids under the scathing bigotry of Jackson’s upper class.  However, just when Skeeter’s clandestine mission of publishing a book looks to become a reality, she is faced with opposition in the form of Hilly Holbrock (Bryce Dallas Howard) a local community leader and toxically racist young woman who wears her intolerance like a privileged badge of honor.  Like many screen villains, her cruelty stems from the notion that she feels that her vile actions are justifiably right.

There are few films in 2011 that have such a strong pedigree of female performers as THE HELP.  Emma Stone is just an effervescent and endlessly infectious screen presence, and even though she does not come off plausibly as the ugly duckling that Skeeter is written as (please!), she more than makes up for it in her subtle and deeply tricky role that has to show the character’s initial youthful naiveté morph into a mature and enlightened social advocate.  Then, of course, there are Davis and Spencer that are THE HELP’s great one-two dynamo:  Spencer has considerable relish and flashy gumption that grows more endearing as the film progresses.  She is effectively counter balanced by Davis, who has emerged as one of the more genuine female performers in a long while.  Davis not only projects a soulful depth and headstrong stateliness to Aibileen, but she also has to evoke her hidden fears and long stemming vulnerabilities with dealing with her oppressive employers.  The way Davis carries herself with the utmost sincerity, poise, and inner strength is the film’s real flash of inspiration.   

There are two other performances that are worth mentioning, one surprising and one not so much.  Jessica Chastain has a great turn as a local Jacksonite ditzy bombshell that is an outsider from the rest of the town’s women, but forges an unusual friendship with Minny (I was shocked to discover that this was the same woman that was in THE TREE OF LIFE, and the way she totally submerges and hides herself within two completely different performances is a sign of a great actress).  Then there is Bryce Dallas Howard in full-on caricature mode as her southern belle that snarls through one hostile exchange with the help after another throughout the film.  For a film with such well rounded and defined characters, it’s a shame that Howard delegates herself to hamming it up to egregiously theatrical levels.  She’s a crude, black and white southern female monster…and not much else. 

THE HELP has other dilemmas, like its ungainly running time of nearly two and a half hours, which seems like too much of an endurance test, especially considering that there are subplots (like Skeeter’s many botched attempts at romance) that go nowhere quickly.  Howard’s character and all of her loyal Betty Drapper-types that make up her squadron of hate are all cut from the some flimsy, one-note material.  Yet, THE HELP still triumphantly emerges as a deeply touching, frequently amusing, and wondrously performed period drama that’s also quite handsomely mounted by first-time director Tate Taylor, who makes the sun drenched and colorfully picturesque Mississippian locations really simmer with a swelteringly tactile heat.   More importantly, though, THE HELP is a feel-good, but oftentimes appalling and sobering fable about racial injustice and how both black and white women transformed each other through their harmonious relationship.  As far as “message films” go, this is one of the more authentically relayed.   

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