Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help


Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis

Films about civil rights and race relations in the 60's are not uncommon; even 40-50 years after milestone events occurred, this theme has been not all that uncommon. The trick is to bring a different slant or perspective on the subject. In 2009, after a glut of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Messenger, a film about the men who are charged with informing the families of soldiers that their loved ones are deceased, was refreshing because it showed the effects of war from a completely different perspective. Similarly, Tate Taylor's The Help portrays a quiet civil rights movement among a group of women who were usually invisible: the domestic help in the deep South.

The Help stars Viola Davis as Aibileen, a domestic worker in Jackson, Mississippi who has taken care of many children, and has watched them grow from wonderful kids to being just like their parents; basically indifferent to loved ones and at the very least, latent racists. Aibileen and her many African-American female friends all work as domestics, raising the white peoples' children, doing their cleaning and cooking their meals, all for much less than minimum wage, and with no respect. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, (Emma Stone) is a recent college graduate who grew up and is friends with the women who employ Aibileen and her friends, but has a different take on race equality than her friends, and, spurned on by her disgust over the initiative to require separate outdoor bathrooms for African-Americans her friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is hell-bent on passing, decides to take action in the form of writing a book from the perspective of the domestics, warts and all, starting with Aibileen. With the contentious civil climate in the South, Aibileen is terrified, but determined to have her voice and the voices of her friends finally heard, with Skeeter's help.

The Help is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, and though I think it is sometimes unfair to compare a book to its film adaptation, it's also human nature, and in this case, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I enjoyed the film. However, there are some pretty serious reasons for that, namely the fact that a lot more back story can be presented about characters in a book than in a film, and characters can be fleshed out more thoroughly, which was really my only big criticism between the book and the film. Though the characters felt less multi-dimensional on the big screen, it was really only because I had read the book that I felt this way. Davis and Stone were both wonderful; Davis' solemnity and stoicism was reminiscent of her small role in the 2008 film Doubt, but she also was able to easily show a lighter side among her friends. This is the first time I'd seen Emma Stone in a film, and really all I knew about her prior to this film was that she was kind of a teen sensation. I thought she did a great job in this role, deftly walking the very thin line between "white girl saves the day" and "good person who does the right thing" and coming out on the right side - there was nothing condescending about her character and her accomplishments. Also notable was Octavia Spencer who played Minnie, Aibileen's best friend. Minnie is a complex character that could very easily slip into caricature with the wrong portrayal, but Spencer was funny, endearing and fearless. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Howard's performance. Perhaps it's more the adaptation of the character from the book, but the character of Hilly Holbrook is truly horrible, and though there were some smirks and narrowed eyes in the film, Howard basically vacillated between ice princess and foot-stomping harpy, which was more annoying and disappointing than anything. Her actions were terrible, but in terms of being a good villain, which she truly is, she fell short.

The Help isn't going to win any awards, other than perhaps some acting nods, but it was a decent film that gave another side of an oft-told story. It is a mainstream crowd pleaser, but sometimes that's okay, especially when it's quietly opening some people's eyes a little bit.

3 out of 5 stars

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