“THE HELP” My rating: B+ (Now playing wide)
137 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
You can’t throw a rock at “The Help” without hitting an Oscar-worthy performance, making this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller one of the best-acted films since, well, “The King’s Speech.”
All that thespian power comes in handy in diverting our attention from some of the story’s more Hollywood-ish plotting and an unimaginative visual style.
OK, maybe I’m being too much of a critic here. There may be a few pedestrian elements in this sure-fire box office smash, but there’s no ignoring the pure emotional power of this story set in the Jim Crow South.
This is a movie that will set audiences to laughing, then bawling, then laughing and bawling all over again.
The subject of Stockett’s novel is the social system that allowed even reasonably affluent whites to hire full-time cooks/maids/nannies from the black community for –pardon the expression — slave wages.
These domestics worked long hours at the whim of their employers. In many cases they were the primary caregivers for white children — children who nevertheless grew up to embrace the racism, subtle and otherwise, of their parents.
A rarity in this process is Eugenia Phelan (the continually jaw-dropping Emma Stone), who comes home from college and a job on the local paper feeling that she no longer belongs to the world she grew up in.
Eugenia’s nickname is Skeeter, which suggests a buzzing, irritating insect. That’s certainly how she comes to be viewed by her old school mother (Allison Janney) and the crowd she used to run with.
Though born to a wealthy family, Skeeter is something of an outcast. Thanks to her freckles and unmanageable red hair she’s always been considered an ugly duckling (don’t these people have eyes?!?!?!). She’s never dated…while she was off studying, her more conventionally beautiful peers stayed in Jackson, married well, started families and embraced the elitist, racist lifestyles of their parents.
Small wonder Skeeter identifies with the black women who toil silently in the background, ignored except when something is demanded of them. A bright young woman with aspirations to literature, Skeeter decides to interview “the help” about their lives.
That’s the spine of “The Help.” In early ‘60s Mississippi — in two key scenes we see TV coverage of the assassinations of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy — any attempt to rock the social boat is dealt with brutally. State law makes it illegal even to openly advocate for racial equality.
On one side of the equation are Skeeter’s girlhood friends, former debutantes led by the wonderfully hateful Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who devotes herself to “patriotic” work. Her latest cause is developing a new section of the state health code to require separate toilets for black domestics (lest some sort of Negro disease be transmitted to innocent white folk).
Hilly is all about Hilly…halfway through the film she slaps her Mamma (Sissy Spacek) in a home, less because the old lady is getting forgetful and eccentric than because she’s a distraction at Hilly’s gossip-heavy bridge parties.
On the other side are two domestics. Aibileen (the sublime Viola Davis) loves the little white girl she cares for, a child all but ignored by her real mother because the tyke is overweight and thus not conventionally beautiful. Aibileen is quiet, composed, thoughtful and nurses a hurt we only learn about in the third act…she provides “The Help” with a solid moral center.
Now that’s not the most colorful of roles, but Davis is so terrific that she breaks your heart with clockwork regularity.
Then there’s Minny (Octavia Spencer), a ball of fire who can barely contain the rage she’s been nursing for decades. That anger usually bursts forth in savagely funny remarks and behavior. Spencer (she was the lovestruck social worker on “Ugly Betty”) is consistently entertaining in straddling Minny’s zigzag course between the funny and the furious.
Another fine performance is delivered by Jessica Chastain (the mother in “Tree of Life”) as Celia, a ditzy bottle blond from the wrong side of the tracks who married a rich boy and is wearing herself out trying to break into Hilly’s Young Matrons mafia. Halfway through the film she and Spencer’s Minny team up and the results are hugely gratifying — two pariahs creating their own happy little world.
Eventually Skeeter’s book of domestics’ stories — published anonymously with all the names changed to protect everyone involved — hits the shelves and at long last “the help” feel vindicated.
Written and adapted by Tate Taylor (an actor who played the bail bondsman in last year’s Ozarks-lensed “Winter’s Bone”), “The Help” isn’t innovative filmmaking. Aside from some authentic settings and costuming it’s pretty basic. Tate sits the camera down and turns it on without much fancy footwork.
But this does have the effect of focusing the movie on two things: The terrific characters and the inescapable sense of injustice that percolates throughout.
And come awards season, expect to hear the names of Stone, Spencer, Davis, Howard and Chastain being bandied about. I’ll leave it to the Academy in its wisdom to figure out which are leading performances and which supporting.
All I know is that while you’re watching “The Help,” it’s all good.
| Robert W. Butler