The Help (2011)

Last summer, Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help ended up being a surprise hit. A year later, the film adaption proved to be similarly successful, staying atop the box office for more consecutive days than any film since 1999’s The Sixth Sense. The literary work was Stockett’s first endeavor, and in a similar vein, the film is helmed by her personal friend Tate Taylor, himself a novice feature director. Out of this marriage of first-time talent, The Help is born a simple yet sentimental little film that reminds us of our ugly past in very black-and-white terms.

Taking place in 1960s Mississippi, where Jim Crow is law and the white upper class uses black help to raise their children and run their households, The Help‘s setting is a familiar place. Instead of subtle and complex characters, the players here are all archetypal, representatives of boiled-down attitudes and ideologies. Guiding us through the film is the forward-thinking Emma Stone as Skeeter, a young woman who cares more about a writing career than bridge club or finding a husband to start a family with. These priorities put her at odds with her peers, headed by the ruthless Bryce Dallas-Howard, but not as much as her views toward the help. Alone in respecting the help as actual human beings, Stone starts writing a book about the trials and tribulations of the indentured life in Mississippi.

Emma Stone has become very popular lately, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s confident and intelligent and has the sense to try roles in a variety of films. Here, she’s easy to identify with – not only are her views more in-line with today’s thinking, but even her looks make her seem plucked out of the present and dropped into the 60s. Still, if Stone is adequate in her role, the actresses surrounding her are phenomenal. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer bring every scene to life in diametric ways. Davis has a powerful, quiet presence while Spencer is dynamic and in possession of seemingly boundless energy. The friendship that develops between these three women is the thread upon which the rest of the film hangs, and thankfully, it’s a strong one.

Not that it would have to be that strong to support the weight of the morality tale attached to the film. The Help isn’t a film that is trying to present a point in our history through a neutral and objective lens. It is out for your emotions through and through. It aims to make you feel some white guilt and a little discomfort, mostly through the unceasingly prejudice Howard. The viewer need not decipher or decide anything; the film has taken care of all that. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some stories try to capture realistic shades of moral gray; others are simplified parables that act more as moral reinforcement.

Once you accept that The Help isn’t out to say anything new about attitudes during the Civil Rights Era – it sticks with the clear-cut judgment of “They were bad” – then it’s easy to enjoy the film. The talented acting extends past the three principals. Cicely Tyson is excellent in a few scenes as the elderly maid who raised Skeeter. Jessica Chastain is infectious as the bubbly yet vulnerable pariah who shows Spencer that not all white employers are cruel or inhumane. And Sissy Spacek provides some good moments of comic relief as an old woman who sees the absurdity of the “proper” society around her.

With solid acting and a simple story, The Help is the kind of saccharine fare that fans of flicks like The Blind Side will enjoy wholeheartedly. Though it occasionally strays a little too far into the ridiculous (Spencer’s act of revenge against Howard seems particularly out-of-place, especially when it’s used as a semi-important plot point), it’s a movie that succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to succeed at. This movie is here for simple reflection on our society’s not-so-distant past, to make you cry and occasionally laugh, and to ultimately leave you feeling satisfied.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse

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One response

  1. Pingback: The Tree of Life (2011) « The Analytic Critic

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