REVIEW: The Help

9 08 2011

Cynics would say a movie like “The Help” is just a slightly high-brow appeal to white paternalism and guilt, an ex post facto vindication of prevalent attitudes thanks to some mettlesome few (an appeal that “To Kill A Mockingbird” may or may not have ridden to classic status).  But I challenge the cynics to sit through the movie and not be moved.  Because whether it’s set in the past, present, or future, a movie about courage that is well-written, pristinely directed, and impressively acted can be nothing but moving and inspiring.

The movie is being released in a time frame in the cinematic calendar year usually reserved for light chick lit, and while “The Help” will definitely appeal to women, it’s hardly flippant or breezy.  The movie tackles prejudice, both beyond and within the realm of race, and other issues that still affect women to this day.  Director Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of author Kathryn Stockett, gives them the treatment they deserve while also retaining that page-turner bliss that comes only from reading a great novel, a rarity in adaptations nowadays.  He captures not just a moment in time but larger, universal truths about human reactions to injustice, be they from the side of they oppressed or the oppressors.

Had he not appreciated how each self-contained storyline affected the work as a whole, “The Help” would be a bloated, convoluted haul of a film.  Taylor flows seamlessly between the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her nearly surrogate mothering of young Mae Mobley while her real parents neglect her, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and her new job cleaning and practically nannying the air-headed but goodhearted Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Skeeter (Emma Stone) and her rebellious challenging of social and cultural norms for young white women, and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the scared white woman pushing “separate but equal” nearly a decade after it was ruled unconstitutional.  With some help from a fabulous ensemble of dedicated actresses, all the stories feel complete by the end, and none shines excessively brighter than the others.

Taylor orchestrates a massive ensemble of women ranging from legendary Oscar favorites Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, and Mary Steenburgen, to acclaimed actresses like Davis and Allison Janney, to emerging stars like Stone and Howard, and even some upstart faces on the Hollywood scene like Spencer and Chastain in perfect harmony.  There’s a sort of tacit understanding between these women as they all fully realize their characters, play off each other, and feed off the richness of the novel and the script.  It’s such an impressive ensemble performance that it feels like an authentic sisterhood.  Together, they breathe such a vibrant passion into the film that it’s impossible to resist.

“The Help” is quite the acting showcase for these criminally little-known women, almost like a minor league all-star game – which only elevates the story’s power further.  It’s hard to pick a place to start when the praise is so universal, so I guess I’ll begin with Octavia Spencer, whose scene-stealing Minnie is in turns uproariously funny and touchingly poignant.  It’s a performance filled with such a wondrous charm but by no means one-dimensional; hopefully it will open up many future doors for this newfound talent.

In case Emma Stone isn’t already on everyone’s mind after a constant stream of likable roles, this more deep, reserved, and nuanced character gives her the ability to shine based on her acting abilities, and Allison Janney, as her mother, gives the most surprisingly affecting performance of the bunch.  Bryce Dallas Howard, although slightly one-note, plays the frigid Hilly with the stiffness of the hairspray holding up her massive hair.   She finds the joy in it, playing her with the sort of ridiculous smug self-satisfaction of a 1960s “Real Housewife of Mississippi” (and Sissy Spacek as her mother gets many a good laugh at her expense).  Jessica Chastain, actually allowed to talk on screen now after Terrence Malick rendered her mute in “The Tree of Life,” lights up the screen with her vibrant, naive energy while also delivering some of the movie’s more dark emotional moments.

All dark, on the other hand, is Tony winner and Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who rarely cracks a smile as the stolid Aibileen.  Life has been hard on her, and you can see it not just in the wrinkles in her face but in the way she carries herself and talks (or doesn’t talk).  Her incredible pathos is truly stirring in a performance that makes you wonder how such an incredible actress was so under-appreciated for so long.

Of course, “The Help” has its issues, namely an oversimplification of racial and gender topics.  As a guy, I’m never a fan of when a chick flick cops out and portrays all men as pigs, but I realize that misogyny runs so rampant in testosterone-driven movies that making a fuss would just be hypocritical.  Yet all of these minor complaints disappear when you are caught in the movie’s grip because the human story being told is such a buoyant exaltation of the good that all of us can do.  A- / 

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