Commonsensemedia.org: 4 out of 5 Stars
Metacritic.com: 62 out of 100
IMDB.com: 8.0/10 Stars
The Movie Man Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Starring: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallace Howard, and Jessica Chastain
Viola Davis has been remembered up until now as the quiet scene stealer of film- she is such an incredible actress, having been nominated for an Academy Award opposite her performance from Meryl Streep in Doubt, and even being the voice of truth in films such as David Schwimmer’s Trust, not an important character, but one that moves along the plot. Which makes you wonder, how can an actress as excellent as her biggest role be as a maid? Which brings us back to The Help.
The Help, based off of Kathryn Stockett’s monumental bestseller and book club favorite is adapted by Tate Taylor, who set this film into development before the book was even published- you could call it a passion project. It stars Octavia Spencer, a relative newcomer to the screen but a friend of Taylor and an actress he fought to be put into her role, as well as the talented young Emma Stone in what is probably her most serious role to date.
The Help chronicles Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious white woman with dreams of becoming a writer that seem to be overshadowed by her mothers of her getting married, Aibileen (Viola Davis), a black maid who has learned to keep quiet over the years, and Minny (Octavia Spencer), a maid who has been fired countless times over the years for back talking to her white employers. The film is geographically and historically accurate, taking place right before the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Skeeter has just graduated from Ole Miss, a college that Southern women mainly attended to pick up husbands, which is why she is the last of her friends to leave. The best job she can manage to find is writing for the Miss Myrna column for the Jackson Journal, a domestic maintenance column, which she knows something about.
Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is Skeeter’s best friend, (and leader of the 1960 Southern Clique, otherwise known as the Junior League) is duplicitous, vicious, and always gets her way. Skeeter begins to question their friendship when Hilly creates the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a document that requires every White home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help, claiming that is because they are known to carry different diseases then they do. The wheels begin to turn in Skeeter’s head- she wonders how the help feels about such blatant racism.
Using her Miss Myrna column as an excuse to talk to Aibileen, Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth’s (Ahna O’Reilly) maid, she asks Aibileen how she feels about all the talk, who beats around the bush long enough for Elizabeth to step into the room. Skeeter begins to think about it, and she calls Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), and editor in New York who turned Skeeter down for a job due to lack of experience but told her to call if she had a good idea, and tells her she wants to write a book of interviews about life from the point of view of the help.
She continues to ask Aibileen, who knows it’s worthwhile what Skeeter’s doing. She’s currently taking care of Mae Mobley, the white baby she’s been most fond of so far- her mother, Elizabeth ignores her child and when she does pay her attention, it’s usually for a punishment- Aibileen whispers good things into the child’s ears and teaches her to love all people the same, but she knows it’s not enough. At this rate, she’ll turn out as racist and one-dimensional as her mother. That’s what gets to her- exposing the hypocrisy of the women they work for, as well as being as courageous as she thinks God wants her to be.
Minny, meanwhile, has been fired again- she works for old Miss Holbrook, Hilly’s mother, and she is let go- this time, because Hilly is putting her mother in a nursing home. Hilly offers her a job, wanting Minny for herself (who is known as the best cook in Mississippi). Minny does something horrible to Hilly that isn’t revealed for the first half of the movie, and Hilly spreads rumors that it was because she stole the silver. No one will hire her, that is, until Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), comes along. Celia was a poor girl from the southernmost parts of Mississippi. Johnny Foote, her husband, married her, and now she’s living in a huge mansion on the outskirts of town. She’s desperate for a friend, so she pursues the Junior League members, who won’t talk to her because Johnny was Hilly’s ex-fiancé. She hires Minny, who quickly learns that Celia isn’t like other white employers.
Aibileen pours out all her stories to Skeeter, who listens fervently- some things that Aibileen tells her are shocking—and those are things that have been under her nose all her life. When Minny becomes part of the group, saying she is skeptic of Skeeter is to say the least- together, their stories are slowly unraveled and they start to feel the world around them changing. Aibileen, who learns to speak, Minny, who learns to speak up, and Skeeter, who learns to change. The three women become friends, and learn that skin may be the only fabric that make them different.
Viola Davis gives her best performance yet- you take one look at her face onscreen and you can see one thousand things going on in her head. When opens her mouth, she speaks with a raw intensity the conveys the complexity and power of her characters. I read an article in Time last month that said when Davis reads a script, she shuts herself in a room with the blinds closed to get to know her characters. Ever since getting nominated for her Oscar, she’s been getting a lot of offers- she says she’s going to ride the shockwave as long as she can, because with the exception of Tyler Perry movies, there aren’t that many major roles for African American actors. She plays a maid in this movie, so the only really passionate lines she gets in this film are toward the end and when she recounts the death of her son- but all in between, you can see that quiet character waiting to be asked to speak her mind. She delivers the best lead performance I’ve seen from an actress this year, and she fully and completely deserves and Academy Award, and I believe she will get at least a nomination.
Octavia Spencer lives and breathes this role. In real life, she quotes the character as her inspiration- the director is a friend, and he fought for her to get this role. She plays the sass-mouthin’ Minny that sends a Southern chill down your spine, and when we discover her true vulnerability, that’s when you can feel the most powerful thing about her- insecurity. I’d say she deserves an Oscar nod too. Emma Stone, who doesn’t get as much screen time, plays her character in an understated but equally admirable fire- this is the most serious role she’s had, rising above her previous romantic comedies. There’s not a subpar performance in this film- special note of, however, is due to Howard, who plays Hilly with a Cruella de Vil like evil, subtle and suave yet intimidating the same. Chastain, who plays Celia Foote with a fun bounce, also manages to deliver emotion into lines that call for such delivery. The performances in this film elevate this film to heights that allow it to stand on its own amidst a sea of end-of-the-summer blockbusters.
The film has had a great involvement in the book even during the pre-publication period. It follows the events of the book closely, which is both its strength and its weakness. Like the book, it glosses over the deeper, more complex issues of Civil Rights, but I felt that this was also what made the film unique. The point of the film was to explore how the maids felt about all this, wherein it becomes a small—but important—human piece, as opposed to ‘the big picture’. This was more of a character study taking place in a time before change really started to come in, which, they managed to do very well.
This, overall, was a gripping, emotionally intense piece that some people might find boring, but I think it will become more viewed during Oscar season. As well as being emotional the film is also funny, the ‘Chocolate Pie’ act the most brilliant comedic scene I’ve viewed this year. This is a movie deserving of the buzz its getting- I just hope it receives a broader audience.