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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Help

The Help, based on the mega-bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, is an uncomplicated movie buoyed by the strength of its largely female cast. It manages to overcome some potentially irksome race-issues of its own (understandably, many people thought this might be another movie about racism that focused inordinately on noble white people) by confronting them head-on and taking them seriously. While some characters, white and black, are unnecessarily broad or reductive, on the whole the film manages to tell its story with an inviting grace.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is an unconventional young Southern woman (this is signaled to us by the fact that she is unmarried and not overly-concerned by that fact) with dreams of being a writer. In search of a story worth telling, she stumbles upon the idea of telling the story of Jackson’s black housemaids, who are entrusted to raise white children but are still cruelly mistreated by their employers. She finds her way into the story through the courageous Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and the spirited Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).

The three women meet in secret to put their stories on paper, while the town around them struggles to maintain the status quo amid the tumult of the larger Civil Rights Movement. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the town’s active society leader, trying to pass further restrictions on the maids (in particular she wants to keep them from using bathrooms that white people may use.) Hilly is the film’s most virulent racist, the rest of Jackson’s white women seem mostly complacent with the system or unwilling to change it. This includes Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) who dismissed Skeeter’s beloved childhood maid in order to keep up appearances.

Jessica Chastain also has a large supporting role, largely as a plot device, and also, curiously, to remind us that white people have problems too, which seems rather beside the point. Chastain’s character is a good-hearted ditz, and the script calls for broad, and Chastain rises to the occasion, especially in a scene that calls for her to stumble drunkenly at a social occasion and vomit on the floor.

The plot moves briskly along to exactly where you know it has to, but the journey is still made worthwhile by all the talented actresses. In my book, there are three performances that could be considered Oscar worthy. Davis will almost certainly be nominated for Best Actress (it’s arguable whether or not she’s the lead, but she does narrate the movie, so that argues in her favor), Octavia Spencer should be a nominee for Supporting Actress, as should Bryce Dallas Howard for her remarkably convincing portrayal of a committed racist. Jessica Chastain has already received a nomination for a Golden Globe, but this seems to fall under the category of most acting as opposed to best.

The Help is smartly constructed (although one plot point, involving a pie, is so silly as to be objectionable, it at least works as a plot construction) but unchallenging material. It is a feel-good movie that fails to make you feel great. Whether this is due to a lack of ambition or a too-weighty sense of grandiosity is hard to tell. Either way, it's still worth watching as a showcase for some remarkably talented women.

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