Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Help (2011)

Before we get into the actual review of The Help, I want to say a few words about the controversies surrounding the film. I will not argue with the fact that yes, Hollywood does have a major problem with presenting the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of white characters (the most egregious example, as cited by Martha Southgate in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, is Mississippi Burning, in which FBI agents are the heroes). And of course, this has everything to do with the marketing: major studios believe that if a film's hero is not white, then white people won't go see it. And this, I believe, is what happened to The Help. The marketing for the film pushed it as Skeeter's (as played by Emma Stone) story, and how she personally helps all of the black maids of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi find the strength to tell their stories. But this isn't actually the case. I haven't actually read Kathryn Stockett's novel, so I can't make any comparisons, but I will say that as a film, The Help offers a compelling, if studio-polished, take on the Civil Rights era that, for once, comes from the perspective of those who were fighting to finally be seen as equals.

The Help is actually the tale of Aibileen (Viola Davis), who is under the employment of Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly). Elizabeth, like the rest of the Jackson Junior League, lives under the social rule of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a chilly mean-girl queen bee. Hilly is pushing a referendum that will require black maids to use a separate bathroom, which leads to a situation between her and her maid, Minnie Johnson (Octavia Spencer). Skeeter returns from college and, upon being asked to push Hilly's referendum and learning that her family's maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), has left, decides to write an anonymous collection of stories from the maids. But Aibileen and Minnie are weary of the project, as participating could mean an end to their employment or worse.

Written and directed by Tate Taylor, the film succeeds largely in showing the "polite cruelty" of the era, as the maids are mistreated psychologically by their employers. Taylor also smartly avoids the urge to place these characters in the middle of major events, instead simply referring to them as they happen on the periphery. However, there are still fundamental problems with this tale. For one, the role of Skeeter is perhaps the weakest, as her purpose is simply to serve as the person that makes the book happen. Stone's a gifted actress, but she's mostly wasted here, and the attempts to give her a romantic subplot are forced, dull, and, to be perfectly honest, offensively sitcom-y and chauvinistic (He's a jerk to her! Of course she'll fall for him!). However, the moments in which she is reflecting on her childhood being raised by Constantine are rewarding, and Stone sells them well. Another minor quibble comes from the resolution to Minnie's story, where one aspect rings completely false with everything we learn about the character throughout the film.

The film's greatest strength is it's truly incredible ensemble, a collection of women at their best. Howard makes for a deliciously bitchy villain, and her now-infamous pie scene is uproarious. Sissy Spacek goes batty-old-lady as Hilly's mom, and Jessica Chastain, who's truly having a banner year, is a comic delight as a ditzy outsider with a wealth of finances but not of domestic skills. But the real stars - and I do mean the stars - are Davis and Spencer. Spencer is a sassy force to be reckoned with, commanding the screen whenever she's present with a fierce independence that hides a terrified woman beneath the surface. And Davis is absolutely remarkable as tough, guarded Aibileen, a woman who has been the mother to other's children while suffering the loss of her own. At this point, it shouldn't be a surprise that Davis can act circles around whoever she shares the screen with (remember her eight minutes in Doubt), but she's truly a revelation here, moving and astonishing. Her final impassioned speech will give you goosebumps. I pity the women who will be competing with her for Best Actress awards later this year.

Sure, the accents can very from partially convincing to completely atrocious, but this is the best-acted film of the year thus far. Don't let the marketing fool you: this is a tale of a woman who's never been truly respected, and is finally taking it into her own hands. And I'm not talking about Skeeter. If nothing else, you won't want to miss the dynamic duo of Davis and Spencer, who need to lead movies more often. A-

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