Based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Help is a showcase for its actors while telling the story of a young white girl who returns home from college, determined to be a writer, and finds a story to tell in the lives of the African American maids working in the 1960s for southern families of privilege. Writer and director Tate Taylor sacrifices some emotional impact by never becoming too explicit with the material and instead chose to make more of a safe, warm bath kind of film. To his credit, though, the measured balance of drama, comedy and compassion allows viewers to become part of this world, connect with the characters and share in their desire to have their story told.
At the heart of The Help you find the film’s two leads; Emma Stone as Skeeter, the impassioned college grad returned home, and Viola Davis as Aibileen, a black maid working for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). During a weekly bridge club get together, Skeeter clues in on the treatment the maids receive, primarily from possibly Jackson, Mississippi’s evilest of housewives, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). It is here she sees an opportunity. However, convincing Aibileen to spill the beans on her employer is a risky venture for both women that could land each of them in prison.
Yes, the setup is simple and in the grand scheme of things, we’ve seen a wealth of similar stories and “message movies” before, but like I said, this is as much about the message as it is the story, but even more so the performances and characters beating in its chest.
As Aibileen, Viola Davis is bound to be praised from all corners, and deservedly so. Even if the material doesn’t quite hit home as hard as Davis’ small, but brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance in Doubt, she’s good here. Additionally, Emma Stone proves she is more than just an actress with good comedic timing. Stone is someone the audience can easily connect with. You like her and she is able to tap into the emotional core of her characters and give them life.
Interestingly enough, I found the performances of some of the supporting characters to be even better than those turned in by Davis and Stone, which is saying something. But before I lavish praise on the two best performances let me begin with three impressive performances not to be overlooked. Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, embodies the epitome of evil as a racist housewife, ignorant of the Civil Rights movement going on elsewhere in the United States. Living with Hilly is her mildly senile and entirely lovable mother, Missus Walters, played by Sissy Spacek. And Allison Janney, an actress that rarely fails to deliver, plays Skeeter’s mother and she’s just as good as she’s ever been.
Yet, the film’s two standout performances belong to Octavia Spencer as Aibileen’s closest friend, Minny Jackson, and Jessica Chastain as the bubbly out-of-towner Celia Foote who’s looked at as white trash by the ladies of Jackson after having married one of their men. To this point I’ve seen Chastain play extremely dramatic characters in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Debt and this was the first time I’ve truly seen her come to life. She is a breath of fresh air in a film filled with stodgy, uptight women, and the way the story weaves her character in with Minny’s is one of the film’s highlights.
As Minny, Spencer is in a zone. Wide-eyed and fiery, she commands the audience’s attention as much as she commands attention within the narrative. Minny is the character you cheer for, laugh with and wish you could sit with over dinner. If Davis and Stone are the heart of this film, Chastain and Spencer are the blood pulsing through it.
Director Tate Taylor adapted Stockett’s novel for the screen and he’s done so with few attempts to water it down, but like I said, The Help isn’t some kind of hard-hitting social message feature. It proves to be at its weakest in its conclusion, primarily because it never tried to be much more than a character piece. So once it goes for the tear-jerking conclusion I didn’t find myself as bowled over as I expected to be.
The Help is a safe place for actors to strut their stuff and they certainly do. The performances are outstanding, Stephen Goldblatt captures vivid colors within some excellent camerawork and the story is one I enjoyed watching play out on screen. In short, the film is a winner. It may be safe with little risk, but it is quality nonetheless.