4 out of 5 stars
If "The Help" is indicative of what the new Post-Princess-Movie Disney studios have to offer, then I am somewhat optimistic about the future of family-friendly cinema. While writer/director Tate Taylor is not going to revolutionize film making with this story of race relations in a subtly Mouse-Eyed view of the
Deep South in the 1960's, he does a competent job of utilizing his movie's greatest asset. In other words, he stays out of the way and lets his magnificent ensemble cast shine.
Octavia Spencer is one of the lesser known actresses to appear prominently in The Help, but her performance as Minnie Jackson is likely to change that. She is often one of the film's most demonstrative and over-the-top characters. Her true comic genius is revealed, however, in silent moments, when she thinks more deafeningly than she could ever speak. Far from mere comic relief, she shifts effortlessly and believably into her more serious moments, inspiring just as much empathy as amusement.
Having not yet seen The Tree of Life, this is my first exposure to the work of Jessica Chastain. I can't wait to see more. Celia Foote, as portrayed by her, is easily the second funniest character in the film, and a total mess until Minnie comes into her life. Her slow transition to a state of growing dignity evinces the skills of a potentially great young actress.
As both these ladies nemesis, "Hilly Hollbrook", Bryce Dallas Howard gives her finest performance yet. I was so caught up in disliking her character by the movie's end, that it took some time for me to realize how much I loved her in the role.
Emma Stone blazed into the spotlight last year in teen rom-com Easy A, proving she could carry a film like a pro. Here, as Skeeter Phalen, she proves that she can hold her own with an equally talented supporting cast. She gives and takes focus with the other actresses like someone who's spent years seasoning her craft.
Sissy Spacek gives a supporting turn with more punch per second than anything this side of Judi Dench's Queen Elizabeth. Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney, and Anna Camp are also notable and solid.
The true heart of the movie, however, is Viola Davis as Abileen Clark. Her somber, dignified air sets the perfect counterpoint to her best friend Minnie's exuberance. Co-star Stone may grab the most screen time, but it is with Davis that we enter and exit the world of "The Help". Her character teaches her young charge the litany: "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." Through her actions, she teaches this same lesson to the ladies around her, herself, and perhaps even the modern audience. Davis's "Abi" demonstrates the greatest emotional range in the film and handles it all brilliantly, even earning one of the film's biggest laughs in a church scene near the end.
Outside of the acting, the film is not nearly so stellar. The script is fairly uninspired and straight forward, and is resolved a little too neatly and easily in the final scenes. The one where Abi and Minnie bid Skeeter farewell in particular seems a bit contrived (or happyeverafterafied) and Abi walks a little too contentedly into a future that is uncertain at best. The audience had laughed and cried so wholeheartedly with these women by then that it hardly seemed to matter. This one's going to have word of mouth.
Amongst the technical aspects at play, one must complement both the Art Direction by Curt Beech and Set Decoration by Rena DeAngelo. Sharon Davis's costuming is also impressive. Most impressive, however, is Camille Friend's work as Hair Department Head. Could this translate into a Best Make-Up nomination? Anything can happen in the Make-Up category, but the work is certainly deserving.
On a final note, many have criticized the film for somehow degrading African American women in both its depiction of the maids as stereotypes and in the omission of certain lurid details of the hardships that women of their station were forced to endure. I found Abi and Minny to be complex individuals who were, if anything, archetypes of traditional upstairs/downstairs comedic roles more than stereotypes particular to any race or culture. Think of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Certainly, some of the more graphic elements faced by domestics in those days were glossed over or omitted. If this were a realistic, hard hitting drama, this would be problematic, even suspect. This movie, however, is a heartwarming picture which (aside from the scene of a dozen "shits") strives to be a family friendly way of instilling a few basic values on some social issues while making the audience laugh and cry.
Summary: Maybe the best female ensemble cast since Steel Magnolias elevates a slightly above average script and production into a really good movie. Disney manages to maintain the flavor of their brand without overly insulting the intelligence of a modern audience. Commendable.