Here's the rap that some critics will lay on The Help, just as they did on Mississippi Burning and any number of other films about the American South in the mid-20th Century: This is yet another movie about the civil-rights movement moment in our history, in which the white people are the heroes, saving the black characters.
But that's far too simplistic a reading of this film, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The black women in this film are its heroes, taking their fate into their own hands against vicious racism masked by Junior League manners.
No, the problem with Tate Taylor's adaptation of this popular book-club novel is that it tries to do too many things. As a result, though it is entertaining and even touching, it is also formulaic, overly schematic and manipulative in ways that it didn't have to be.
The film ostensibly is about a young college graduate in 1964 Jackson, Miss., named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). Supposedly a turn-off to men because she's got too-curly hair, too-obvious intellect and a too-sharp wit (plus she wears glasses), she is, nonetheless, played by the delectable Stone, who is incapable of dowdying herself up enough not to seem attractive. So -- the whole "why can't Skeeter get a man?" subplot should be out the window.
Home after graduation, Skeeter lands a minor job writing a household hints column for the city paper. Feeling insignificant, she decides to aim for something bigger -- and happens to notice, as the South is being shaken by the civil-rights movement, that the black maids in her mother's home and those of the girls she grew up with don't seem to have much of a voice in their own daily lives.
So she decides to write something from their point of view. She starts interviewing maids, beginning with her friend's maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), with the idea of showing their side of the story. At that point, however, the film stops being about Skeeter and shifts its focus to Aibileen, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and the other "help" whose story Skeeter is trying to tell.
Obviously, there's got to be a villain -- in this case, Skeeter's Junior League nemesis, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly treats her maids with a special meanness -- and gets her comeuppance with a particularly appropriate prank that reflects her obsession with not letting her maid, Minnie, use the toilet in her house.
The Help works best when it just focuses on Aibileen, Minnie and their cohort. It's particularly good at creating the sense of connection Aibileen has with the children she cares for. As Skeeter notes, these black women spend more time with the children they're in charge of than the children's mothers (particularly Ahna O'Reilly's Elizabeth, whose daughter Aibileen currently looks after). It also folds in a moment in history -- the assassination of Medgar Evers, which plays out as a catalyst for decisions that the black characters make.
The acting is the best thing about The Help, with Davis (in her quiet strength) and Spencer (blending comic relief with tragic power) leading the way. Howard tears things up as the villain, while Stone, usually so good, is only serviceable as Skeeter -- because the role itself seems less like a person than a construct. And the usually reliable Allison Janney is stuck in the melodramatic role as Skeeter's drama-queen mother, who is dying of cancer (but apparently not fast enough).
There are a couple of big laughs -- and moments of heart-breaking inequity -- in The Help. It is a solid piece of entertainment, but it could have been something deeper and richer, with a little more effort.
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