The Help (2011)

Written & Directed by Tate Taylor

The first time I heard about The Help it was in book form and selling like hotcakes. Well maybe not like hotcakes, but it was very popular and a friend of mine was reading it, telling me how good it was. I am not a bog reader, though I read some, but it did not strike me as a book I would read, especially when I learned it would be made into a movie. Knowing the subject matter, however, I was quite surprised that Emma Stone was cast as the lead in the film. Don’t get me wrong, I love Emma Stone, but to this point in her career it doesn’t seem like the kind of role for which she would be the frontrunner. But looking back on the film, Emma Stone is the perfect reason this movie is what it is. Well, that and writer/director Tate Taylor.

Skeeter (Emma Stone) has just returned to Jackson, Mississippi from Ole Miss from whence she graduated and now she has ambitions of becoming a writer. After being turned down by a New York publisher for lack of experience, she takes a job at the local Jackson Journal writing a housekeeping column to get her start. In need of help, she enlists the help, in the form of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and soon Skeeter develops the idea for a book: the unique perspective of the black help in a white run Jackson. Aibileen is at first apprehensive about the idea, but soon fellow maid Minny (Octavia Spencer), who has just been fired by the town brat Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and hired by the eccentric and rural Celia (Jessica Chastain), joins up on the idea of the book, giving the town a sort of shock to the system and Skeeter the big break for which she is looking.

This film begins and ends with its cast and everything that it ever becomes is because of the wonderful array of actors which has assembled for this project. The story is solid, and one that will most likely draw the attention of the Academy, but it handling by writer/director Tate Taylor is about as bland, tepid and sugar coated as the story itself. In this regard it is perfectly adequate popular drama, which is fine, the world needs these types of films. But without the ambitions of thinking outside the box, Taylor presents a straightforward narrative, which might be the best decision for him, letting the story, and his wonderful actors, breathe on screen. I will give him this, the pacing is fine and the lack of visual or narrative flair puts the focus squarely on Stone, Davis, Spencer, et al.

The film has such a large cast of characters between the black help and their white housewife counterparts that one could argue they are all supporting actors, but at the center of the film is the lead performance of Emma Stone as Skeeter. Earlier I said that Stone was the example of why this film is what it is. Well first I would say this film is perfectly fine, adequate and entertaining cinema, nothing more. I say Stone represents this because, while she is capable, she is better known for her comedic roles and here her dramatic turn is nothing more than passable and watchable. The emotional heft is carried by those portraying the help, first and foremost Viola Davis as Aibileen. Davis could act her way out of an alien encounter if she needed to she is that good and the reason she shines as she does in this role is how genuine her emotions seem to be. And that is also the success of Octavia Spencer as Minny.

Jessica Chastain is wonderfully strange as Celia and Bryce Dallas Howard is fine as Hilly, not really bringing anything extra to a character on the page who is already evil enough to hate. But I would like to bring attention to both Sissy Spacek, who plays the elderly mother of Hilly, and Cicely Tyson, who plays Constantine, the maid who brought Skeeter up. Both are limited in their screentime, but prove most illuminating while they grace the screen, Spacek for her comedy, and Tyson for her heartfelt sincerity. I have talked at length about the performances and not much about the other aspects of the film and quite frankly that is because the performances are the only thing of note here. Everything else amounts to a basic, run of the mill social drama of the Civil Rights Movement, which threatens of hardship but never really goes far enough to be all that convincing. But what the film did do is manage to let me leave the theater entertained and with the attitude of Carpe Diem because it is just as manipulative as the next Hollywood melodrama. But most melodramas don’t have Viola Davis in them.

 

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