“The Help” is a sleeper hit — a movie that performs far better than anyone expected. Since its release on Aug. 12 it has made more than $150 million. That's no small feat for a summer full of superheroes duking it out with super villains.
In a way though the villain of “The Help” — the perpetuation of deep-seated racist traditions in the 1960s — is far more troubling and cringe-inducing than any of the fantastic plots cooked up by this summer's baddies.
“The Help” focuses on Skeeter (Emma Stone), a white Southern girl from a wealthy background who bucks all the Southern ideals her mother and friends have tried to instill in her. She hungers to be a writer in New York City. Instead she gets a job writing a cleaning column for a local paper. She seeks advice from Aibileen (Viola Davis), a friend's black maid. This encounter leads to the idea to write a book from the perspective of the help.
At first Skeeter's only subject is Aibileen, but others join including the sassy and strong willed Minny (Octavia Spencer). Standing in their way is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a bigot that essentially represents all racist Southerns. It is a broadly written and performed character, but the character serves its purpose well.
The other major character is Celia (Jessica Chastain), a socially outcast white woman, who bonds with Minny and treats her more like a friend and equal than a servant. There relationship adds a complexity to the film that wouldn't have been present had the film focused solely on the good, noble Skeeter versus the cruel and manipulative Hilly. Chastain gives a sweet, funny and lovable performance and has a wonderful dynamic with Spencer.
Stone, who up to this point has proven herself to be one of the most promising, charming and funny actresses of her generation, shows dramatic range and depth. Scenes with her mother, played by Allison Jenney, and the maid (Cicely Tyson) who helped raise her have emotional power.
The heart of the belongs to Davis, who gives a subtle, powerful performance. There is a stillness and control to her performance that helps ground the film in reality, which is important to balance out the films broader moments.
Director Tate Taylor, who also adapted the screenplay from Kathryn Stockett novel, finds a good balance between heavy dramatic moments and light comedy. The tonal shifts are rarely jarring as the characters, even if they only represent different archetypes, are so well defined and performed.
Some, including the Association of Black Women Historians, are accusing “The Help” of being racist for filtering these black women's story through a white woman. This is an exaggeration. Could this story be told solely from the perspective of these black maids? Yes. Is the subplot involving Stone attempting to find love unnecessary and distracting from the main story? Yes, but the device of Stone writing a book on the behalf of these woman isn't contrived. The civil rights movement was based on whites and blacks working together.
Clearly, this is a film that takes on the issues of race and gender persecution, but the story is relatable to anyone has faced and attempted to overcome adversity. The empowerment that they feel is moving and uplifting.
The film does simplify the race issue. It essentially sanitizes what was happening to make it more palatable to the mainstream. Some may see this as a negative, but it has allowed the film and its message be seen by more people.
This isn't to say the film doesn't address much of the ugliness of the time period head on, but it is packaged in a way that is more accessible. It is easy to be dismissive of this approach. A harder more realistic version of this material could've been made, but it wouldn't have received the wide exposure this film has had. So, there's a trade off.
The above isn't an attack of the film, but merely a description. Dramatically the film is deeply satisfying. This is a “I laughed, I cried” film. There are some very big laughs paired with tears of both sorrow and joy. The film moves alone briskly and despite a running time of over two hours, the film is engaging from beginning to end.