With Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain; Running Time: 137 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for thematic material); Written and directed by Tate Taylor.
In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi was no place to be an African-American. Segregation was the norm and menial jobs with no basic protections like Social Security were about all such folks could aspire to. But Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, “Easy A”) decides to buck white society’s rules by making a career in journalism her first priority. After obtaining a job writing the “Miss Myrna’s Cleaning Hints” column for the Jackson Journal, she turns to Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, “Doubt”), her friend Elizabeth Leefolt’s (Ahna O’Reilly) maid, for answers to her readers’ questions. Then Skeeter finds herself a book project when her eyes are opened to the humiliations endured on a daily basis by Aibileen and those like her in THE HELP.
Anyone who has read and loved the New York Times bestseller by Kathryn Stockett had to be dismayed when the film’s trailer was first released. The book is about horrible injustices done to faithful servants by their employers, women who could ruin a life without a second thought… all over a little silver spoon. To effectively communicate the real bravery required of the black help who agreed to speak out for Skeeter’s book, a serious tone was required. However, the film’s trailer took elements of the book and made it look like a comedy of scatological jokes and sassy back talk from the help. Rest assured, though, Stockett’s longtime friend Tate Taylor, who adapted the screenplay and directed the film, hasn’t betrayed her – only the editors of the trailer have. The film doesn’t break any cinematic ground, but it is a faithful adaptation, well-cast with beautiful production design, shot on location in Greenwood, Mississippi.
The film’s center is Aibileen, a woman who has raised seventeen white children as if they were her own and who is currently trying to instill self-respect in her current “baby girl,” Mae Mobley, a 2-year-old brushed aside by her mother. This is just another show of decency against the odds, and is all in a day’s work (‘You is kind. You is smart. You is important,’ Aibileen tell the child.) Aibileen also does all she can to make her employer look better to her guests, but Elizabeth follows Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Eclipse”), the president of the women’s league, unconditionally and Hilly Holbrook is not only a racist, but a spiteful one at that. Skeeter starts to become ostracized when she continually ‘forgets’ to print Hilly’s Home Health Initiative – in which separate bathrooms for black help are pronounced necessary for proper sanitation – in the league’s newspaper. When she misprints a request to drop off used coats at the Holbrooks as ‘commodes,’ Hilly declares war.
There are many events set in motion which lead up to the publication of Skeeter’s anonymous book, ‘The Help,’ and although Taylor can’t include all the women’s histories and backstories, he does a fine job keeping multiple balls in the air. At first, Only Aibileen will talk to Skeeter, and she’s mighty uncomfortable doing it, at least at first. Minny (Octavia Spencer, “Dinner For Schmucks”) comes around when, despite her reputation as the best cook in Jackson, she is fired by Hilly for using the inside toilet during a tornado (and Minny’s vengeance doesn’t stop here, making for the book’s most scandalous section). The final straw for the help comes when Minny’s replacement, Yule Mae Davis (Aunjanue Ellis, “The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3”), is arrested for stealing an unwanted ring she found behind a couch in order to be able to afford to send her second twin to college (she asked Hilly to borrow the money and was shut down with much condescension).
There is also the wonderful side story of another outsider to Jackson society, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, “The Tree Of Life”), who is not only considered white trash but had the nerve to marry the man Hilly had wanted. She eventually hires Minny and the two benefit each other enormously. Skeeter has her own drama with her mother, Charlotte Phelan (Allison Janney), who is dying of cancer, wants desperately to get her daughter married off and will not tell her why their longtime help Constantine (Cicely Tyson) disappeared during Skeeter’s final semester at college. There’s even room to bring in the Medgar Evers shooting (the historical event dramatized in “The Ghosts Of Mississippi”).
The film is a little “Steel Magnolias” in its ensemble sisterhood vibe, something which didn’t come across in the book, and it is certainly Oscar bait, but it is solid, meat-and-potatoes Oscar bait. Emma Stone is an able young actress and perfectly capable here, but perhaps someone of more depth and subtlety would have provided the film more gravitas (Stone is a gifted comic actress, however). Viola Davis more than compensates with a quiet performance which speaks volumes – just watch her eyes and her body language as Skeeter inadvertently keeps Aibileen from catching her bus or the way she hesitates and collects herself when Skeeter asks her about her own children. Octavia Spencer comes up from the minor leagues and nails her role.
After having dropped from the sky in “The Tree Of Life,” Jessica Chastain scores again as a Marilyn Monroe-esque backwater bombshell with a heart as big as her bosom and Bryce Dallas Howard keeps enough of a lid on Hilly’s villainy to keep the character real, an eye on appearance above all things. In the senior ranks, Janney finds the layers in Charlotte to keep her from becoming a cliché (‘sometimes courage skips a generation,’ a nicely-delivered line which ripples echoes in the reverse direction with the Holbrook mother/daughter relationship) while Sissy Spacek is good-natured comic relief as Hilly’s addled mom. In a small role as Skeeter’s publisher, Mary Steenburgen provides a nice bracing air of outsider cluelessness combined with insider professionalism (‘write it fast before this whole Civil Rights thing blows over’). Mike Vogel (“Blue Valentine”) registers in the small role of Celia’s husband Johnny, but Chris Lowell’s (“Up In The Air”) performance as Skeeter’s potential romantic interest gets lost in the shuffle.
The production is perfect, each character’s home aiding in her definition. Costume, hair and makeup are all place and period perfect. When Skeeter has a date, Charlotte whips out a Shinolater, a bizarre contraption for straightening hair that will bring a smile to anyone who remembers the time. The unknown Taylor has done a terrific job paring down the book yet keeping so much content and his direction, while not visionary, is rock-solid.
“The Help” may not be as hardcore an emotional experience as Stockett’s novel, but it is a much finer adaptation that could have been expected from many more experienced commercial filmmakers. Taylor has kept his friend’s vision true with minor compromises and should find himself cheering on members of his cast and crew come Oscar night.•••
Laura Clifford and her husband, Robin, have been producing the movie review show “Reeling: The Movie Review Show” since 1991.