Friday, August 12, 2011

‘The Help’ A solid, wonderful film

‘The Help’ is a film about three very different yet extraordinary women in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s; arguably one of the most racial charged times in our history. However ‘The Help’ chooses to be a safe film about a very emotionally charged subject, as it glazes over the more racial charged issues; which is fine as the performance of the actors far outweighs any attempt to turn the movie into more of a ‘feel good’ film.

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, the story follows Skeeter Phelan (the wonderful Emma Stone), a recent college graduate searching to fulfill her career dream of becoming a novelist. Skeeter has never really fit in with her Jackson socialite friends, especially the racist Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is more concerned with her social standing than being a decent human being. Skeeter finds inspiration in the plight of the of the maids that work in the service of the housewives of Jackson, Mississippi, especially Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who both agree to share their stories with Skeeter. Both maids have spent their lives as nannies and maids, raising little white girls while maintaining the households. Aibileen is especially good at caring for the children, genuinely loving them even though when they grow up, they will turn into their vile mothers.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer steal each and every scene they are in; Davis alone deserves an Oscar nod for her emotionally charged and very real performance. Davis and Spencer shine so much that the film becomes more about them than it does the core issue of racism; which, may be by design more than by accident. In these politically correct times, even a movie that explores the sins of our past (as a country) may be more risk than any studio can stomach. Ultimately, that is a shame; after all, this is our history and the story bears repeating as there are lessons still to be learned.

As Aibileen and Minny share their stories with Skeeter and the book develops, so does Skeeter’s understanding (and thus we the audience) of the issues at hand. There are several sub-plots, the story of Skeeter’s mother (Alison Janney), who while Skeeter is away at college fires her nanny (played by Cicely Tyson) but then comes to an obvious realization by the end of the film. There is also the story of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who is married to a wealthy businessman yet shunned by the socialites of the town as white trash; she develops a friendship with Minny who teaches her how to be a housewife. Finally, Sissy Spacek is the mother of socialite Hilly Holbrook who is sent to a home after being a little too vocal in her support of the recently fired Minny, who bakes a small surprise into a pumpkin pie for Hilly. There are hints of true drama, as with the very lightly touched upon physical abuse of Minny by her husband; but the filmmakers choose not to pursue these.
Viola Davis is the true star though and rightly deserves praise; Octavia Spencer is a joy to watch with impeccable comic timing and an expressive face that just makes you smile. Emma Stone is a classic Hollywood starlet in the making, with her stunning good looks and doe eyes that offer a world of expression; it’s too bad that the movie never really allows her the opportunity to really shine.

This is a 3 ½ star effort that really could have been 4 stars with a little more brutal honesty and less feel good wrap up. In either case, it is worth viewing alone for the fine performances by the stellar cast!

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