The Help

Directed By: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, and Jessica Chastain
At STMR, I try and cover the latest and greatest to hit theaters.  Every once in a while, however, a film slips through the cracks.  Normally, it's just because of other higher priority films.  Typically, it's some awful horror film or thriller that gets the boot.  It's the film for which the trailer can't hide how much it will suck.  In the case of The Help, I can't say that either holds true.  With a group of world-class actors adapting the bestseller novel of the same name, I had no expectations that the film would necessarily be bad.  Rather, I had no interest in the subject matter of the film, and I'll leave it at that.  Having seen the film, I can say that The Help is a great movie, and it's hard not to enjoy.
It's the early 1960s.  In Jackson, Mississippi, this means that most able-bodied black women work as maids in the homes of local whites.  It also means they suffer under the cruel racist influence of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and anyone in her social circles.  Hilly has decided to spearhead the Home Help Sanitation Act, legislation that makes it illegal for maids to use the bathrooms in their employers' homes, the places they work day and night.  Given her social influence, her friends and fellow members of the community immediately embrace this ridiculous new bill, and it is enacted by the local government.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) are two black maids and best friends who have stuck together over the years.  Now, they must endure this nightmare.  Aibileen, who recently lost her 24-year-old son, has spent a lifetime raising white children and works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly) one of Hilly’s close friends.  Now, she can’t even use the same bathroom as the kids whose diapers she’s changed, and she deals with this gracefully.   Minny, on the other hand, suffers directly under Holbrook.  She actually works for her.  She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she fervently disagrees with the Home Help Sanitation Act.  In fact, Minny tricks Holbrook into believing that she actually used her bathroom and gets fired for it.
Young white woman Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) recently graduated from the University of Mississippi.  Rejected by Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen) of the esteemed Harper & Row, Skeeter finds employment at a local publication in Jackson.  Writing the cleaning column for a newspaper is not a very fulfilling vocation for Skeeter however.  She wants to be a real journalist.  The unmarried, well-educated woman moves back home with her mother and father (Allison Janney and Brian Kerwin).  Looking to do something to impress Stein and to do some real journalism, Skeeter wants to write about what it's like to be the help — what it's like for these women to raise white children while their own children are home being raised by someone else.  To do this, Skeeter needs to get some one-on-one time with one of the maids, namely Aibileen.

While it's somewhat predictable and a little too long, The Help is an enjoyable adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name to the big screen.  The direction by Tate Taylor is smart and creates a grim community in Jackson.  The writing is full of sharp, witty dialogue that drives the film along.  The actors all deliver piercing, emotional performances that make their characters quite colorful.  All in all, it's one good movie.

Tate Taylor does a great job of recreating the 1960s.  He gives us the music, the culture, and the harsh realities in all the right doses.  With some of the strong musical selections from the likes of Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Chubby Checker, one could easily argue that Taylor is pulling a page out of the Mad Men playbook.  No one can argue that it's not a wise move however.  Beyond the music, Taylor gives us a strong dose of 60s culture.  He creates a seemingly vibrant community in Jackson and illustrates this through every meal, every church service, and every social gathering. 

Life in Jackson is not as rosy as it looks on the exterior though, and Taylor plays to this element well.  Underneath all the platitudes and this superficial sense of community within the city lies a racist Southern mentality.  It's a mentality that virtually enslaves "the help" to their employers.  It's a mentality that relentlessly oppresses the blacks of Jackson despite the fact that the Civil Rights Movement is raging elsewhere in the country at this time.  It's a mentality that keeps the black maids in a separate bathroom outside the house while their white employers plop their asses on their "clean" toilets indoors.  Taylor has no problem highlighting this harsh reality, and he does so in just the right dose. 

The cast does a great job throughout the film.  Given the type of movie we're talking about here, I'm going to talk about the black actresses first.  Their roles are naturally more complex in The Help.  As Aibileen Clark, Viola Davis gives one of her best performances to date on the big screen.  She brings grace and dignity to her character in a powerful, emotional performance.  Her character Aibileen is a woman who has seen real atrocities in her life time, and she's tired of just coping with them. 

As Minny Jackson, Octavia Spencer keeps us laughing.  While frying some chicken may make her feel better about life, one really special chocolate pie nearly solves all her problems and leaves us in tears laughing.  Beyond her comic relief, Spencer also serves as the conscience of the film.  Whether flushing Hilly's toilet or straightening out her kids in church with one mean gaze, Spencer's Jackson keeps it real throughout the film.  Davis and Spencer are also backed up by a stellar supporting cast of black actresses including Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek, and Lachanze.  All these talented actresses give their all in the film as well.

Though some of their roles aren't quite as meaty, the white actresses in The Help give strong performances as well.  As Skeeter Phelan, Emma Stone brings a unique charm to the film.  There's something about her that is reminiscent of an older generation that really makes her performance in this period piece something special.  She brings a lot of heart to the film and a likable naïveté.  Stone is perfect for the role of Skeeter in every way.  I promise you this girl will have a little golden statue named Oscar some day.  As Hilly Holbrook, Bryce Dallas Howard is just the opposite.  She embodies the Southern racist mentality that Tate infuses into the film.  I have to say that Howard is doing her job really well because, frankly, I don't like her character.

Among the young white ladies of Jackson, there is one outcast, Celia Foote.  In the role of Celia, we have Jessica Chastain.  This is a very different role for Chastain that allows her to further demonstrate her versatility as an actress.  Her character Celia is an air-headed rich girl who can't cook, clean, or find a way to fit in with the other women of Jackson.  She's a lighter character that infuses the film with some silly innocence.  In 2011, Chastain was already in more serious roles in films like Tree of Life, The Debt, and Coriolanus.  It's nice to see a different side of her.  There are also a few other supporting actresses portraying the white women of Jackson.  By far, the standout amongst these actresses is Allison Janney as Skeeter's mother Charlotte.

The Help definitely surprised me.  I came to the film a bit jaded and left it satisfied.  With strong direction from Tate Taylor and a host of marvelous performances from a group of talented actresses, I have to give The Help a strong 0.03% rating.  Have a wine cooler or two with this one.