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« Something is Golden in the State of Denmark. | Main | Unsung Heroes: The Cinematography of 'Once Upon a Time in the West' »
Thursday
Aug112011

Review: "The Help"

The first storyteller is Aibilene (Viola Davis), a black maid raising her 17th white baby in the Jim Crow south. She can't answer the question of what it feels like to raise another woman's baby when you've left yours behind at home. It's an overwhelming opening inquiry to be sure. Though it's immediately clear Aibilene is being interviewed, we don't know why and for what purpose as The Help begins. This type of prologue is common in movies as you get a peek at what's to come before stepping back to the beginning, but the introduction is important: Abilene is the first person we meet and the narrative voice of the movie. 

Viola Davis even listens with dramatic depth!

Though mainstream Hollywood has proven time and again that they're constitutionally incapable of telling black stories without a white frame --  in this case Emma Stone's frizzy haired provocateur "Skeeter" who is secretly writing a book about the experience of maids in Jackson, Mississippi -- The Help, however subtlely (and perhaps accidentally), suggests with its Davis-centric opening and closing passages that Abilene is capable of creating frames of her own, thank you very much. In fact, she'd rather write her own story than tell it to another writer.

So she does.

Mm-hmm. It's Octavia Spencer as Minny, a surefire Oscar nominee.If Tate Taylor's adaptation or Kathryn Stockett's bestseller were confident enough in Aibilene's voice to downplay Skeeter's this would be a much more revelatory movie, and surely a more painful one, but we're dealing with the movie we've got which is essentially both of theirs.

The story, or, more accurately, stories of The Help are passed like batons throughout the movie. Deep breath now: Skeeter who wants to be writer has a starter job as a cleaning advice columnist which leads her to conversations with (baton pass); Aibilene who is dealing with personal grief and a weak-willed bad-mommy employer; Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) who is continually pushed towards racist actions by local queen bee; Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) who loves lording her power over her mother, local girls, maids and the town outcast; Celia (Jessica Chastain) who is loud and 'trashy' but really loves her maid; Minny (Octavia Spencer), the best cook in town and Aibilene's BFF, who has a sharp tongue and is at war with Hilly.

Though it's easy to take potshots at The Help  -- we might discuss those soon -- it's also somewhat ungenerous since The Help is well meaning and entertaining and best of all affords us the rare opportunity of seeing several watchable actresses chewing on a meaty multi-course feast together. Sometimes they mistake the scenery for another course (Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain may both provoke heated arguments about the line betweena "type" and a caricature) but this was bound to happen. Chief among the delights in the acting arena is watching the dependable Viola Davis (Doubt, Far From Heaven) take the reins of a movie for once instead of stealing the whole thing in one scene or two.

The interplay between the characters makes up the bulk of the entertainment value, since with its sometimes candy color glossiness and very brief detached asides to actual history (usually on television sets), it's obviously not going for a deep historical rendering of the violent racist south. The movie would have done well to jettison much of Skeeter's story, both for pacing (it's far too long) and thematic strength, but Stone is such an engaging actress that it feels strange to object to having more of her around. Her storyline does eventually return, movingly, to the subject at the heart of The Help.

In the end where The Help wins over its audience, provided that they're okay with a surface take on a deep troubling subject, is with its trio of central performances. The intertwining still relevant topics of civil rights struggles, labor and racism are so large and overwhelming that it can be hard to breathe in their vicinity. What potency The Help does achieve it gets from its entertaining actresses sharing the thick pressure cooker air: Davis inhales, Stone fumes, Spencer erupts.

One final exasperated exhale from Aibilene is just the right cathartic move to end with. The audience breathes with her. And isn't this her story after all?

Related:
Oscar Discussion With Katey 
Review Index 

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Reader Comments (15)

Your review is great, and it hits all the points of this movie on the head. The cast is almost uniformly great, even if the narrative is somewhat clunky - I truly hope that Viola Davis can carry this role to a Lead Actress nomination, as you and Katy were discussing in the podcast. I'd also love to see Octavia Spencer get a nom but can I just say that my favorite supporting player was Sissy Spacek? She was such a hoot every single time she was on screen.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

It should read "peek", not "peak" (as in mountain peak).

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Thanks, Nat. I might just see it. I've been really uncomfortable with the white packaging, but to see an actress-centric movie would be lovely.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I read the book, but haven't yet seen the movie. I didn't really have a problem with the white third of the story in the book because it was understood that Skeeter was an outsider as well. Sure her drama was being played out in the living room and not the kitchen, but still.

The main thing I'm wondering is if it will make money. If so, we may get another actressy comedy/drama in the next couple of years.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Dave -- it's already doing well financially. But Hollywood is weird about actress successes. They always pretend every hit is the first one!

August 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

As soon as I saw the name Celia I was hoping Celia Weston was in this (she plays Southern women so well). Nice review. I had no interest in this, but I think I want to see it now.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

ScottC - Celia Watson could do nothing but smoke her cigarette and raise an eyebrow for two hours, and I'd pay full ticket price to see it. Love her.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTB

I liked the book alright but I had trouble taking that the black maids needed "the help" of a rich white girl to be heard. It's as if Rosa Parks had needed a white girl to give her seat at the bus. C'mon. I never took of it as an historical acurate portrait of racism in the 60's south.

Anyways, once you accept the premise of the thing you can enjoy it for what it is. It's kind of a fairy tale with some heavy background. And I intend to enjoy it like this.

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

this is why i love this blog - nathaniel, you have a way with words, my friend
SO REFRESHING to read a well-written review that doesn't give away too much of a film's plot

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpencer

Spencer -- thank you. i try never to focus on plot but just give a feeling. I don't understand why so many critics tell you 3/4ths of the story.

August 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hi Nathaniel, Good review, but didn't see nary a mention of any of the famous veterans in the cast, Spacek, Tyson, Janney. I thought they were all marvellous. Sissy in particular seemed larger than life, giving a great, hilarious performance that had me thrilled everytime I saw her. Was wondering what you thought about the elder stateswomen.

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Nat you didn't tell us who you think is most likely in for awards contention.

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Mark -- you can listen to the podcast for that. or check the chart updates... though they're not finished. i'll try to get them done tomorrow!

August 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I saw The Help tonight. It's a film saved by the performances of the ensemble. In the end I think Bryce Dallas Howard and Viola Davis have the hardest roles to pull off -- if for no other reason it's easy to hate the villian and love the victim but both women make choices as actors not to be titled black and white. I must admit that the more I hated Bryce's character the more she started looking like her father and uncle.

I love Jessica Chastain. I look forward to all of her leading roles. Spacek is awesome. Allison Janney deserves a movie all of her own. I miss her. Completely underrated in the film world. Octavia Spencer. I'm so happy for her. This film will get her a lot of attention seeking comedic roles in the future.

The film feels like something Tyler Perry attempts to make but fails continuously.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

i was living in Meridian, Mi with my first wife for about 6 months in 1964... her grandparents lived there and wanted to give us an acre of land and build a house on it for us... i told her he could give me the whole state of Mi and i would run the other way ... i was 19 and had been born and raised in Ca.... my parents had friends of every color and race and so did i..


this movie is food as far as it goes, but a year later in 1964, i saw hangings along the highways and everything you have heard and more.... i hope more movies of this quality continue to come out and hopefully there will be some education still for the Southerners... i visited Biloxi recently and even though legally nothing can be done to the Blacks, there is still heavy prejudice


as a white person, this makes me ashamed of my race.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick
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