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.

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