In some ways, “The Help” is critic-proof because it arrives wrapped up in the most deceptive of packaging: good intentions. A well-meaning film can make a critic blind to flaws or, conversely, can make a reviewer more ruthless about its shortcomings purely because of its lack of narrative or thematic ambition. And director Tate Taylor doesn’t make it easy on himself, tackling a film about segregation, based on an Oprah-friendly book, and produced under a division of Disney. All of those elements make “The Help” a pretty big and easy target, and to be sure, the cynical viewer could sit back and lob easy shots. However, buoyed by strong performances — a couple of which are sure to be major awards-season contenders — and a mostly subtle touch with material that could very easily be manipulated or manipulative, “The Help” finds its good intentions in very capable hands.
The movie kicks off with the plucky Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), fresh from college, looking to get her writing career started. Though she boasts a long list of credentials working for high school and college papers, she’s been rejected for a job with a New York City publisher who says to re-apply once she has more experience. Skeeter will take what she can get, even it means writing the Miss Myrna domestic advice column for the Jackson Journal. Her pursuit of career is in stark contrast to the lives her friends have built for themselves. Led by the prissy Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) they have all married, had children and now participate in the Junior League, a charity and community organization looking to do good deeds and better the lives of Jackson residents. It’s almost immediately apparent that Skeeter doesn’t fit into the world of Hilly and her Junior League, but soon that division of values becomes painfully clear.
Hilly makes it a personal crusade that the household ‘help’ should be required by law to use a separate bathroom outside the house. She drafts a letter which she sends to the Surgeon General who passes it along to the Governor and the state, and to show her dedication to the cause, she quickly installs one on her own property for Minny (Octavia Spencer) to use. Meanwhile, Hilly more or less bullies her friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) to do the same, creating something else to feel bitter about for already jaded Aibileen (Viola Davis). Though Skeeter doesn’t come right out and say it — Southern manners still count for a lot — she visibly bristles at the proposal. But something else happens which begins to stir in Skeeter a call to action. Her mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) has suddenly fired their longtime help Constantine (Cicely Davis), the now elderly woman who raised Skeeter and worked for the family for twenty-nine years. Skeeter initially approaches Aibileen to help her with the Miss Myrna column, but then decides to take it a step further, asking her to share her stories of being a maid in the deeply divided Jackson, Mississippi for a book she wants to put together focusing on those perspectives.
At first, Aibileen is rightfully wary. She recalls the violence members of her family faced when going to vote, not to mention that this sort of conspiring would be shocking if anyone were to find out, putting their very lives in danger. But soon, incidents around her move her to speak and not long after, the even more tentative Octavia decides to lend her voice to the oral history too, after being fired by Hilly for daring to use in the indoor bathroom (during a raging storm that, we find out afterward, killed eighteen people). Their tales come slowly at the start, but soon turn into a torrent and Skeeter finds herself sitting on material that is not only explosive but finally gives a voice to people long taken for granted and still treated very much like property. Once the stories are collected, edited and then published — anonymously of course — that’s when the sparks truly fly as Jackson women begin identifying themselves in the stories, even though the names have been changed.
While Emma Stone has been sold as the lead, she is merely a catalyst for what is really Aibileen’s tale, and thank goodness for Viola Davis. In what is easily a Best Actress nomination performance, Davis operates on a level the rest of the movie never quite achieves. Physically, Davis finds the shape and gait of a woman who has been cooking and cleaning her entire life, and combines it with a turn that shows Aibileen’s fear, coupled with the underlying sense of empowerment she feels at unburdening the ups and downs of her history as domestic help. There is a great scene in which Aibileen has Skeeter over to her house for the first time and as it slowly plays out, you begin to wonder why she isn’t sitting down and is nervous and jittery. It’s quite simple. She’s never served a white woman in her own home before and Davis communicates that unease in a manner that goes for subtle over showy. Playing things a bit more expressively is Octavia Spencer as her best friend Minny — in one of the most satisfying screening pairings we’ve seen so far this year — a fiery, funny and more outspoken maid who has not only a disdain for, but a terror of white people, fearing the worst should they be slighted, but has enough self-worth to be able to serve them their just desserts (in this case, literally) should she be wronged. Touchstone should start readying a Best Supporting Actress campaign because, like Davis, Spencer finds different notes within her character’s hard shell in a turn that earns very real laughs and just as much emotion. Aibileen and Minny are yin-and-yang to each other, and every moment they are on screen, the film leaps to life. But while the duo shines, the film that unfolds around them can’t always get by on their work alone.
Structurally, the film begins in flashback for no discernible reason other than maybe because the book was written in the same fashion, a move that suggests an adaptation that is too faithful to the source material. While the film’s leisurely 146 minutes stretches out like a lazy Southern Sunday afternoon, and certainly allows these characters and stories to develop more shades than in a shorter running time, it also provides room for unnecessary digressions from the main thrust of the story. Most glaringly surplus-to-requirements is the relationship that develops between Skeeter and Stuart (Chris Lowry), a couple set up somewhat ironically by Hilly, but whose arc is rather quick and ultimately inconsequential. The breadth of the story also finds Taylor struggling to keep a consistent tone throughout, with sections of the film veering into broad comedy that seems to belong in a different movie, especially in the story thread attached to the Junior League’s pariah, the white-trash, ditzy blonde Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Taylor doesn’t waste a chance to play up the actress’ ample curves for sex appeal and to milk her bimbo routine for big laughs, and though winning most of the time, the character plays too obviously as relief, so that the dramatic underpinnings of her tale don’t get quite enough due. And it’s unfortunate that black men get short shrift in the film as they are either preachers (David Oweloyo), kindly waiters (“True Blood” star Nelsan Ellis, once again in a kitchen in the South) or wife abusers (Minny’s husband Leroy who remains off-screen). For a film that offers variations of black female characters, it’s too bad the men don’t get the same consideration.
As the film heads into its final act, the emotions swell and everything gets wrapped up a little too tidily. Thanks to Celia and her husband, Minny learns that not all white people are murderous racists, Aibileen makes peace with her life and her past, Skeeter teaches her mother a lesson about bravery and our villain Hilly suffers the worst indignity of all — a blemish. Yes, it’s a little too pat and a bit too easy so we circle back to those good intentions we were talking about. Certainly, there is absolutely nothing groundbreaking or even challenging about “The Help.” You’ve seen this kind of movie before — probably twice or three times — and it’s built in a “The Blind Side” style: a broadly appealing “issues” movie, with a pleasant sheen painted over the uglier aspects of the story. But while the football flick was patronizing, “The Help” avoids similar pitfalls by keeping the story small-scale. The narrative revolves around Aibileen, Minny, their maid friends, Skeeter and the Junior League. Through glimpses we catch on television, we see the assassinations of Medgar Evars and JFK, but they are not overly focussed upon, serving more as a reminder that while courageous actions may not change the face of the country, they can inspire a community to which hope was nearly lost.
But here’s the thing, for all the film’s obvious plotting and at times overwrought emoting, it’s undeniably enjoyable and entertaining. While the viewing experience may not be anything new, the performances lift the film out of what could have been a very Hallmark story. And something that can only be described as Southern charm evokes a uniquely homespun take on a story set within a very real place, in a history that we’ve seen before on the big screen — but not quite like this. Moreover, the idea of who this film is really about and who it belongs to is never lost, and as the film closes, the victory rightfully belongs to Aibileen and Minny — not to Skeeter. They emerge not as black women who needed a young, spirited white woman to take up their cause, but as already hardened warriors who were given the tools to fight the type of fight they wanted, and who took home the biggest prize of them all: self-respect. [B]