Film Review: The Help (2011)

The Help is a film designed to make people feel good about themselves. It takes a massive social issue--the Civil Rights Movement--and distills it down to a funny--almost cartoonish--and safe story of a young white woman encouraging hard working black women to do what they can to help change the world. She does this through writing. She will write a book about what it's like for the black help to raise white family's babies while their own children are being looked after by someone else. I doubt anyone can accuse the film (and the source novel by Kathryn Stockett) of trying to do anything harmful to the recent history a serious struggle.

The problem with The Help is not its intentions, but its execution. The screenplay by writer/director Tate Taylor feels like an over-simplification of a series of important issues. The moments in the film that should feel like a sucker-punch to the gut wash over you like the stroke of watercolor brush.

As much as Taylor tries to make this a two-hander between Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone)--the white writer--and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)--the first housekeeper who agrees to the interview process--, the film ultimately feels like the story of a young white woman fighting against social norms in Alabama. Aibileen Clark has equal screentime but not equal weight in the narrative. Where every scene Skeeter's in focuses on her, Aibileen fades into the background even when surrounded by her closest friends.

This is not to fault the work of the actors at all. Viola Davis is remarkable in the film. Her Aibileen is easily the most fully-realized character onscreen and she handles her melodramatic scenes with great skill and believability. Allison Janney, playing Skeeter's cancer-suffering mother, does great comedic work that slowly transitions into one of the best dramatic moments in the film. The same can be said for Sissy Spacek, though her role as as the villain's elderly mother functions as comic relief even in its sincere moments.

Jessica Chastain--having one of the greatest breakout years as an actress in recent memory (it's hard to name films she's not being raved about at this point)--could easily walk away with the Academy Award for Supporting Actress for her scene-stealing turn as Celia Foote, a clueless young woman thrown into the upper-crust of Jackson society by chance. She lights up the screen. Her energy is infectious and she, like Viola Davis, gets the most bang out of her melodramatic moments.

Not as lucky with characters are Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Octavia Spencer. As Skeeter, Emma Stone is stuck mouthing off to anyone who expresses interest in her as a woman and sucking up to anyone who goes to work in a maid's uniform. It's the kind of static central figure that goes standard in these feel-good dramas. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hilly Holbrook, the villain in the film. She's the rich, racist snob trying to push through a state-wide ordinance that would require every home to have an outdoor bathroom for the help for health purposes. Howard does what she can with the part, but there is no range to it. She seethes, she rages, and she passive-aggressively torments Skeeter and the help for two and a half hours.

Octavia Spencer's Minny Jackson is the character I struggled the most with in the film. She's a sass-mouthing housemaid fired by Hilly Holbrook in her first scene onscreen. While Spencer pushes the character beyond stereotype with a strong performance, the framework is still there. This is a housemaid character in the vein of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Minny fries chicken, sasses her employer, sings in the church choir, and knows everyone's business. It takes a long time for Minny to have any chance to step outside of that type and her transformation into a more novel character is pulled back from as soon as it is revealed. Spencer is great to watch onscreen, but her character kept pushing me out of the narrative.

This review focuses entirely on the screenplay and actors. Why? Because I can't find much else to write about. The technical elements--from art direction to score--are what you would expect in this kind of film. You aren't watching The Help to gawk at the costumes or appreciate a clever editing job. You're watching The Help either for the acting--it's become an awards magnet--or for the story--it's a box office hit based on a bestselling novel. There's joy to be had in watching this film, but don't expect much else. It's candy-coated history that won't even let a sad moment be sad to the detriment of the picture.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 19 December 2011

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