Review: The Help
PLOT: When Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young Mississippi society gal, returns home after completing her degree, she notices, for the first time in her life, the racism and civil inequality that dominate her circa-1960’s Jackson, Mississippi hometown. She decides to write a book telling the stories of the town’s black maids, all of whom have been forced to leave their own families to work for menial wages in white homes, and raise their employer’s children, while being considered no more than servants by their racist employers. At first, only Aibileen (Viola Davis) a middle-aged widower who recently lost her only son, and the sharp-tongued Minny (Octavia Spencer) have the courage to sit down with Skeeter, and tell their stories.
REVIEW: THE HELP could be called “civil rights-lite”. Essentially, it’s the family-friendly, Walt Disney (well, Touchtone actually) version of what went on in places like Jackson, Mississippi during the turbulent sixties civil-rights era.
As such, THE HELP is an entertaining enough film, although it’s elevated by a trio of strong performances by the actresses playing maids. I imagine at the Oscars this year, Viola Davis is all but guaranteed an Oscar nom (the question being rather or not they’ll put her up for lead or supporting- this is a lead) as Aibileen, the middle-aged maid whose anger over the loss of her own son, while being forced to raise her indifferent employers kids- but still not even being able to use their bathroom, spurs her to give Skeeter the material she needs for her book. Davis is magnificent, right from the first scene where she dons a coiffed wig (her employers are offended by her un-straightened hair), and dotes of her cold employer’s ignored child. This is a great part for Davis, and she brings real warmth to the role.
Octavia Spencer is another stand-out as the sassy Minnie, who, in the film’s most memorable scene, fools her ignorant, racist employer (a thoroughly unpleasant Bryce-Dallas Howard) into literally eating shit. Apparently, Kathyrn Stockett, who wrote the book this is based on, patterned Minnie after Spencer, and it shows. If Spencer doesn’t get a supporting actress nod I’ll be shocked.
The third, award-worthy performance has to be Cicely Tyson, in a tiny, but heartbreaking part as Skeeter’s childhood maid, who mysteriously vanished after a falling out with Skeeter’s shrill, domineering mother (played, somewhat cartoonishly, by Allison Janney). It’s a tiny role, but damn if Tyson doesn’t own the film whenever she’s on-screen.
Meanwhile, THE HELP is being sold as an Emma Stone star-vehicle, and while Stone is terrific as always, who really cares about a wealthy, white southern belle, whose biggest hurdle to overcome is being taken seriously as a writer and finding love? There are higher stakes at play here for the maids, and it’s their stories that make THE HELP worth watching, while Skeeter’s own is as predictable as can be, and drags out the considerable 140 minute running time somewhat.
I’d say the performances by Davis, Tyson, and Spencer are what make THE HELP a really worthwhile film, as without them, I doubt I’d be giving this a recommendation. There have been many better films made about this era (with MISSISSIPPI BURNING being my top pick), but as far as a Disney-fied, PG version of the civil rights struggle goes, THE HELP isn’t bad.