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The Help

Drama | 146 minutes | release date Sep 22, 2011

By Penny Zhou | Sep 21, 2011

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  • The Help
  • The Help
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(USA) Written and directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek. Category IIA.

The year was 1963 and the town was Jackson, Mississippi. When the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement was about to break through the darkness of Jim Crow south, African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated. One wouldn’t quite expect a film set in the same place and time to be a heart-warming, feel-good watch, yet “The Help” (the screen version of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-selling novel), pulls it off—if not without a few missteps along the way.

Centered on a young white journalist and her unlikely bond with two black maids as she writes a book about their lives, the film does suffer from a second-rate directorial effort by Tate Taylor and a patronizing cloyingness that probably derives from its original material and won’t be appreciated by black viewers. But this truthful adaptation, powered by a splendid female ensemble and a dose of white guilt, easily serves as crowd-pleaser that may both satisfy the ready-made fan base and enlighten moviegoers unfamiliar with this particular chapter of American history.

Emma Stone stars as “Skeeter” Phelan, a fresh college grad and aspiring writer who’s just gone back home to Jackson. Unlike what mother (Allison Janney) fervently wishes (“Your eggs are dying!” she nags), Skeeter has little interest in getting married, and finds herself a misfit among her cohorts of bridge-playing perky housewives—a circle that she has outgrown. These women, like most white people in Jackson, were brought up by black housemaids, only to grow up and become employers who take their maids for granted, if not outright abuse them. Skeeter learns that her housemaid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has mysteriously left during her absence. In the meantime, she gets a job writing a homecare column for a local paper and constantly seeks advice from Aibileen (a spectacular Viola Davis), a maid that—despite all her hardships in life—has helped raise 17 white babies with love and devotion. The racial inequality in her neighborhood households, as Skeeter is quietly outraged to find, inspires her to write a book on the life stories of these helpers, from their perspective as maids to their experiences with white families. But it’s no easy task—no maid dares to be interviewed, as speaking up about injustices and indignities may mean putting their livelihood, and even their lives, in danger.

A bevy of terrific actresses—all sporting flavorful southern accents—presents a gallery of colorful, diverse characters who are the major reason to watch the film. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the villain, beehive-haired Junior League hostess Hilly, a self-righteous hypocrite and uptight racist who promotes a “Home Sanitation Bill” that forbids maids from using their employers’ bathrooms. Her maid, as well as Aibileen’s best friend, is Octavia Spencer’s Minny, whose comical sass makes her both fierce and warm. “The Tree of Life’s” Jessica Chastain is almost unrecognizable here as Celia, a blond bombshell of a social outcast who’s dim and unstable, but doesn’t hold prejudice against black maids. The 77-year-old Tyson, appearing only in limited flashbacks, steals every scene she’s in; while Sissy Spacek is a great fun to watch as Hilly’s dotty mother. As for the exceptionally yet effortlessly likable Stone, I was wrestling with my inner lesbian as I always do when seeing her on screen. But the one to behold is Davis, who is undoubtedly the film’s heart and soul. In contrast to the verbal Minny, Aibileen is mostly suave and quiet, but the eminently nuanced Davis makes sure
that you feel all the weight of her fear, her pain and her love in every one of her movements.

On the other hand, second-time helmer Taylor’s writing-directing skills are much less impressive when compared to the cast. A good friend of the author’s, the filmmaker wisely borrows the light-hearted—sometimes even gossipy—overall tone from the book to keep the film entertaining, but forgets to invest more subtlety and sensitivity in the storytelling. If it wasn’t for Davis’ hearty performance that offers an emotional axis that the audience can gravitate around, we would have been in need of some help getting through the two-and-a-half hours.

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