Emma Stone as Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan
Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark
Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook
Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson
Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote
Ahna O’Reilly as Elizabeth Leefolt
Allison Janney as Charlotte Phelan
Anna Camp as Jolene French
Eleanor Henry as Mae Mobley
Emma Henry as Mae Mobley
Chris Lowell as Stuart Whitworth
Cicely Tyson as Constantine Jefferson
Mike Vogel as Johnny Foote
Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters
Brian Kerwin as Robert Phelan
Directed by Tate Taylor
On returning to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, journalist wannabe “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) gets a job at the local paper writing a cleaning column. She turns to her friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) for help giving advice and learns about the mistreatment and prejudice suffered by black maids in the area with her childhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) being one of the main culprits, firing her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) when she uses the family’s indoor bathroom rather than the outhouse. Aibileen agrees to tell “Skeeter” stories about her life as a maid and governess under the condition she does it anonymously, but the results cause quite a scandal in town.
It’s hard to believe that a bestselling book that popular among women featuring no male characters of any significance could actually be of interest and entertain men and women equally, but that’s certainly the case with Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel
Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early ’60s, we meet all the characters in the story at once in rapid succession as the local club convenes. Bryce Howard’s Hilly Holbrook is the head of the circle of young women in high society who have gotten married to wealthy men at a young age, all of them employing maids and governesses to watch their children. Viola Davis’ Aibileen has been caring for white women’s kids for most of her life and she’s aware of all the goings on around Jackson. Emma Stone’s Skeeter is a journalist student who has returned to town to get a job at the local paper giving cleaning advice. Seeing how her school friends are treating their maids, she convinces an editor at Harper’s that an article on the maids of Jackson through their respective would be interesting to their readers, and she convinces Aibileen to sit down with her under the condition her stories will be kept entirely anonymous.
This is a true ensemble but being that the majority of the story is from Aibileen’s point of view, it’s up to Viola Davis to tie the different storylines together, something she does quite ably with a true powerhouse performance that proves her to be one of the finest dramatic actresses working today. We wouldn’t even be remotely surprised if she gets another Oscar nomination out of this. Emma Stone is great as always creating a character with quirks but also one grounded in the realities of the time.
Being a drama about serious circumstances during the South of the ’60s doesn’t mean there isn’t room for fun and laughs, a lot of which comes from Octavia Spencer, who is a true revelation, delivering some of the best lines and getting the biggest laughs with her highly-expressive face. Jessica Chastain plays a semi-humorous role as Celia, the community’s flighty treated as an outcast by Hilly after stealing and marrying her ex-boyfriend. Celia’s absolutely hopeless as a housewife, which is why she desperately needs a maid; when Hilly fires Minny, the latter jumps at the chance to help out the competition. Sissy Spacek plays a marginal character as Hilly’s senile mother, who helps lighten every scene she’s in, and Allison Janney is equally terrific as Stone’s mother, who is suffering from cancer.
“The Help” offers the type of multi-layered story that allows each of these great actresses to have a standout moment, and it never becomes an issue how scare the men are and what little importance they play to the story. Skeeter does eventually meet a guy, but Taylor never feels the need to transform the movie into a romantic comedy or spend much time on relationships the women have with their men. Instead, it remains focused on the relationships between the women, and though it’s a work of fiction, the happenings amidst this small group in Jackson are kept in perspective with the cultural and historic significance of the times like the murder of Medgar Evers. Keeping these things balanced immediately makes the film better than other recent attempts at historically-relevant drama such as “Secretariat.”
It’s fairly obvious that Tate Taylor is a better writer than he is a director, because “The Help” isn’t that impressive in a technical sense. Even so, he’s able to pull every ounce of emotion out of every scene, which is certainly a strong achievement on its own. The movie does go on a little too long and many of the later scenes could have used a trim, but you do leave the theater warmed up and feeling as if you’ve watched something truly special.
The Bottom Line:
A bit rambling at times, “The Help” may have been improved by a director a little more willing to cut down his own script, but the fantastic performances make it a real winner of a movie, one that entertains and moves you regardless of gender, age or race. For a fairly inexperienced director working from much loved material, that’s quite an achievement.