Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, brought to the big screen by her friend Tate Taylor, is the story about the friendship of three women in segregated 1960’s Mississippi.
Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) is a recent college graduate with dreams of becoming a writer. Upon returning home, she gets the idea to write a book telling the untold stories of the maids in her town. It’s a risky idea, even illegal at the time due to the Jim Crow laws, and Skeeter is at first met with resistance from the maids. Eventually Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is the first to come forward and agree to be interviewed. She is soon joined by her best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). A bond is formed between the three women as they share their stories.
It’s easy to be skeptical about The Help. The novel after all was written by a white woman born in 1969. Stockett’s manuscript was rejected 60 times before being accepted and published. Star Viola Davis even recently admitted in an interview with Movieline to having her own hesitations when she first heard about the book. (“’Ugh..’ my heart sank,” was her initial reaction upon learning the novel was written by a white woman).
The book eventually won Davis and millions of others over due to the depth and humanity of the characters and the inspiring story of unlikely friendships and ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Still, even with the success of the novel, many (including myself) likely had an “ugh” moment of their own upon hearing of the film adaptation. You know this type of film. The feel-good, message drama carefully constructed to get a laugh here, a tear there, and a “You go girl!” there. There have been many before and there will be many more to follow.
The Help isn’t one of them.
With the wrong people involved, it very easily could have been a clichéd tearjerking chick flick. That’s not to say there aren’t a few moments that border on manipulation, but most of the tears and laughs are well-earned thanks to the phenomenal cast, with Davis at the forefront. Make no doubts (sorry, couldn’t resist) this is her movie. Every moment she is on the screen, Davis pulls the viewer in with her captivating and nuanced portrayal of Aibileen. A quietly flawless interpretation of the character, she often doesn’t even have to speak a word. It is without a doubt (I didn’t do that one on purpose) an Oscar-caliber performance, and deserves to be remembered come awards-season.
The rest of the cast is just as on-point and nomination-worthy. Octavia Spencer’s scene-stealing and star-making performance as Minny will make you laugh out loud one moment, and break your heart the next. Emma Stone once again proves that she is one of the most talented and versatile actresses of her generation giving Skeeter a perfect balance of gumption, humor and naivety.
At times you can almost hear Lindsay Lohan shoving another pin into her Emma Stone voodoo doll.
While viewing the film, it’s difficult to appreciate how fantastic Bryce Dallas Howard is, because she is so convincingly repulsive you are too busy hating her (her character is pretty one-note, but damn, does she play the hell out of that note). Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother is exceptional as always and Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson are fantastic in their small but pivotal roles (I dare you not to howl in laughter along with Spacek during one particularly memorable scene. I also dare you not get something in your eye during another featuring Tyson). Lastly, there’s Jessica Chastain. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her and I can’t wait to see her again. Her moments with Spencer are perhaps the most touching in the entire film.
Due to time constraints, it’s nearly impossible to include everything in a novel in the film adaptation and cuts must be made. The Help could have used a few more of these cuts, clocking in at 2 hours, 17 minutes. A few subplots could have easily been dropped without affecting the overall tone and story, including Skeeter’s relationship with a suitor whom quickly goes from asshole to nice guy back to asshole before we even care enough to remember his name. It adds little to the story save for a few of those “You go girl!” moments I mentioned earlier.
The Help is a solid film with outstanding performances that are not to be missed. It’s not so much a “message-movie” as it is a movie that happens to have a message (and that message is not the obvious “Racism is bad”). It’s a beautiful story about friendship, understanding others, and having courage when faced with opposition. Rest assured, though it may appear to be at first, it is most definitely not another one of those brave white hero stands up for racial injustice movies.
Mini-Spoiler: This is also the second movie in two weeks that contains a gag about a person eating feces, but unlike The Change-Up, it works splendidly here.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a drink: every time someone is shown using a toilet.
Take a drink: whenever Skeeter’s mother complains that Skeeter is still single.
Take a drink: every time Hilly says something horrible.
Take a drink: every time Celia mentions how bad she is at cooking and cleaning.
Take a drink: whenever there is a mention of pie.