Saturday, September 24, 2011

Movie Review: The Help

Viola Davis as Aibileen in The Help.
The Help (2011)
Directed By: Tate Taylor
Based on the Novel By: Kathryn Stockett
Starring: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain

I saw this movie more than three weeks ago, so this review is long overdue. Initially, I had little interest in seeing The Help, but with all of the hype and Oscar buzz I couldn't let it pass me by.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement in America, The Help follows the intersecting lives of rich, white families and their "help" -- women who have raised generations of children not their own, while taking care of the household chores of the entitled people they work under. Skeeter (Emma Stone) has aspirations to become a writer. As she toils in an unsatisfactory job as a home care columnist, Skeeter decides to uncover a juicy story in order to impress a New York book editor. When the town terror, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), fights to enact a bylaw that would equip all homes with outdoor washrooms for "the help" -- to avoid sharing and "contamination" -- Skeeter sets her sights on writing a piece on the plight of black women working for white families in her hometown. It would be the raw, human story she was looking for, although it takes a fair amount of convincing before Skeeter finds someone willing to speak. She finds her subject in a woman named Aibileen (Viola Davis) who puts her heart and soul into raising her current charge, a lonely little toddler with a nonexistent mother, in an attempt to try to overcome the recent death of her own child.

With her expressive eyes and quiet grace, Viola Davis gives a beautiful performance as Aibileen. She gives her characterization of a grieving, under-appreciated woman subtle nuances that pulls the viewer in from the start. What the story lacks in cohesive plotting, it more than makes up for in the acting department. With Davis leading the charge, The Help is a film brimming with wonderful performances from some of the best actresses working in Hollywood today.

Viola Davis (left) and Octavia Spencer.
 As Aibileen's closest friend, Minny, Octavia Spencer gives a performance that is both hilarious and heartwarming. Although Minny was initially reluctant to agree to an interview with Skeeter, watching her transform from a hesitant woman to one filled with confidence is one of the films highlights. You can't help but sit up and take notice when Davis and Spencer share scenes together. And, as the town's outcast "floozie," Celia Foote, Jessica Chastain continues to impress with a memorable supporting performance as a lonely housewife who finds true companionship with Minny; their scenes together provide The Help with some of its strongest, most emotional moments. 

As Hilly, Bryce Dallas Howard does her best with a role that is, at best, a cartoonish villain devoid of any redeeming quality or legitimate motivation as to why she behaves the way that she does. It's fun to hate her (and Howard is so good at being unlikeable in the film), but the word "villain" is practically stamped on her forehead. Emma Stone is solid as Skeeter but she's ultimately relegated to the background in the second half of the film.

Despite wonderful, award-worthy performances, The Help has the tendency to gloss over racial themes in favour of fluffy, easily-resolved issues. The main problem is at the very core of the plot -- rich, privileged Skeeter is likable enough; however her book on "the help" poses no risk to herself. Best case scenario, she'll get to move to New York to become a successful author and fulfill her dreams and, at worst, she can just go back to the job she already holds down at the local newspaper. The fact that she's writing the story to land a cushy job and take a step up the career ladder is hard to forget as she coaxes Aibileen, Minny and other women in her hometown to speak out against their employers. Sure, Skeeter promises them anonymity but, as we see, it isn't hard to figure out who is who in the finished novel. Skeeter is appropriately outraged at the tragic stories that are recounted for her, but it leaves a bit of a bad aftertaste knowing that the ones who will suffer the consequences of any backlash will be the actual subjects of the novel.

The quieter scenes with Aibileen and Minny recounting their life stories are powerful, yet audiences may want a little less glossing over of the true, tense nature of that time period in the south. One scene, in particular, stands out as an indication of exactly what is at stake in 1963: When civil rights activist Medgar Evers is shot dead in front of his family, the town of Jackson goes into a state of panic. After learning the news of Evers' death, Aibileen is cruelly booted from the bus she was riding on with mostly white patrons. As people run back and forth in the dead of the night, Aibileen panics and starts to run towards her own house. Suddenly gripped by the realization that she, too, could wind up getting killed while all alone on the street, Aibileen lets her fear take over. A usually stoic and reserved woman, she is briefly overtaken by unrestrained terror. The Help needed more of these quietly powerful scenes to provide more commentary on the racial relations in Mississippi during the 1960s.

However, any qualms you may or may not have about certain aspects of the film easily disappear as you witness the performances of the superb cast; celebrating with each of the characters as they witness the powerful effects of their stories being revealed to the public for the first time. Part quick-summary history lesson, part melodrama, The Help should (and will) be recognized during awards season for its remarkable cast who all rallied around a patchy, glossy script to create a mostly satisfying tearjerker.



  1. Not a comment on your post I'm afraid!! Do you know your rugby team played here today in my home town against Japan?? I'm not sure of the score yet. Suffice to say there was a sea of Canadian flags around Napier and my beloved home town done itself proud and put on a gloriously sunny Spring day. Unfortunately the next team they face is NZ and I think they'll be thrashed I'm afaid. We are the greatest rugby nation in the world and the Maple Leaf is in for a lesson I'm afraid!!
    But the real reason I'm here is to make you green with envy!! I have seen Some Like It Hot on the big screen several days ago!! Yeah I can see why it is film so many love. I will review it one day. Am having serious computer troubles at the moment and posting is almost impossible.
    Also borrowed Tony Curtis' book on the film and will read that soon and tie it in with what I post. As to my thoughts on the film?? Loved it!! Jack Lemmon was absolutely outstanding. You can see he just so got into the role and the fun of it all. I'm not usually a Marilyn fan but I will give her her due as she was good in this. But I believe she was a pain on set. The interesting thing was I didn't realise the song " I wanna be loved by you " was from this very film. I knew the song but not where it was from. The humour has dated as humour does but there was still enough moments where I found myself chuckling!
    Before I went in I really wondered if it would live up to the reputation of being one of the greatest films ever made. I think it about 14th on the AFI's ( flawed ) list. But I will unhesistatingly say yes it is now!! I've readsince that this along with Psycho were the films that broke down the absurd censorship laws films were made under back then. I mean SLIH caused an uproar due to its drag queen premise and the sexual inneuendo is subtle and yet totally blatant that I suppose the system had to give way sooner or later.
    And the line " Nobody's perfect " is regarded as one of cinema's best loved and well known! Certainly a great film..and not just great...totally unforgettable and one that is impossible not to warm to.

  2. Haha. Not surprising. This movie came out more than a month ago and it took me forever to review it. ;)

    Yeah I've heard about that rugby tournament. It's not exactly a sport we are known for (it's no hockey, that's for sure), so I wouldn't be surprised if we were eliminated fairly early. But it's nice to know they have a lot of support from fans!

    Was that your first time seeing Some Like It Hot, then? If so, it's definitely cool that your first experience was watching it on the big screen.

    All three leads were so excellent. I hope you enjoy Curtis' book, only make sure you take everything he wrote with a grain of salt. He was prone to exaggerations and, since all the key players in his book are dead, they couldn't tell their side of the story. But it's a great read, nonetheless. I did a series of posts (starting with this one: as I was reading the book earlier this year.

    I think the film was so ahead of its time (I mean, they even had a plot point where a man accepted a proposal from another man!). I'm amazed at how well it has stood the test of time.

    Yeah, this film and Psycho played a huge role into the changed censorship laws. Think of all the "controversial" films of the 60s and 70s that never would have existed without the help of Some Like It Hot and Psycho.

  3. Yep first time watch!! I will be approaching the book with that grain of salt. I mean for Curtis it is convienient that the rest of main cast is dead as they can't contradict him. But I've always been wary of memoirs over the years for that very reason.
    Funny thing is is that this wasn't the first time men had played women in a film. In 1949 Alec Guinness played 8 members of the D'Acoscoyne family in Ealing Studios Kind Hearts and Coronets. He plays Lady Agatha at one stage and I believe there was an uproar over him playing a woman.
    I read your reviews several weeks ago even before I knew the film was to play here!
    It has stood the test of time well but then great films do don't they?!
    As to your rugby team they aren't that bad!! Sure they aren't up with the big boys like NZ, Australia and South Africa but they are improving all the time. Some of the best games so far have involved the second tier teams as they are more evenly matched and the games closer. For me there is no real pleasure in watching NZ run over a team 87-7 as we did against Japan recently. Canada I'm afraid is in for that sort of drubbng. I couldn't believe the amount of Canadian supporters here. I mean they far outnumbered the Japanese considerably.

  4. It won't take you too long to read the book ...pretty short and Curtis has a nice, simple writing style. Enjoy! True or not, it's an entertaining read.

    Some Like It Hot definitely had films and entertainers that came before them in terms of cross dressing; however, the jokes in Some Like It Hot were much more ...suggestive, I guess ...than earlier films. I think it was actually adapted from a French film from the 40s, so the story itself isn't original, but I think one of the main reasons it caused controversy (besides having them dress as women) was because "Daphne" accepts another mans proposal and actually seems to be enjoying his life as a woman. What scandal! lol

  5. Yeah i twas adapted from a French film which the Germans then made before the Americans!! The suggestion in it was so obvious and yet so subtle! I must write a review quickly while they are still fresh in my mind, but certainly in 1959 they were very forward!