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.