Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty
“These women raise white children. We love them and they love us but they can’t even use the toilets in our houses,” says Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring young writer who has returned home to Jackson, Miss., in 1962 after graduating college in the new film The Help. After getting a job at the local newspaper answering cleaning questions, Skeeter asks a book editor in New York, Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), if she would be interested in a book written from the black maid’s point of view about the social differences and segregation. After getting the go-ahead from her new mentor, Skeeter approaches her longtime friend’s maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), and asks if she could interview her. Scared to death of what could happen to her if anyone figured out what she and Skeeter would be doing, Aibileen says no.
Skeeter, however, is not the kind of young lady to take no for an answer. She keeps politely asking Aibileen to help her with this project, urging her that it’s the chance to tell all her stories and do something no one has ever done before. Finally, getting fed up with the racism and injustice that she and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) have to endure at the hands of their employers, Aibileen agrees to work with Skeeter in secret.
The project becomes more difficult for Skeeter when her New York editor decides that she’s not interested in just one maid’s stories but at least a dozen. Aibileen is able to convince her best friend, the out-spoken, brassy Minny, to become part of the project. So together the three women continue to write their book while trying to convince other black maids to join the cause and share their personnel experiences by putting them down on paper.
The Help is a moving, melodramatic period piece which effectively captures a slice of America’s history with stand-out performances. Viola Davis delivers a stellar performance as Aibileen Clark, a woman who overcomes her deepest fears to help do what she knows is right. She deserves an Oscar nomination for her work in this film and here’s hoping the Academy remembers it during voting season. Bryce Dallas Howard gives her best performance to date as Hilly Holbrook, the Queen socialite of the town who believes in segregation. No one is going to tell her different, least of all her former best friend Skeeter. Howard plays the character with the right amount of grace, charm and venom. Octavia Spencer is wonderful as the sassy, brassy, out-spoken Minny. She steals almost every scene she’s in and still has some very sweet and subtle scenes with Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, an aspiring socialite who desperately needs Minny’s talents as a cook as well as her friendship.
There are, however, a few things wrong with the film. Skeeter’s romance to a rude, loud mouth, non-stop drinking Southern jerk named Stewart detracts from the main story and slows the pacing of the movie. It feels forced and seems to exist only to give Stone’s character a classic melodramatic scene near the end of the film. Another problem is the way the character Skeeter is written and played by Emma Stone. It’s almost impossible to believe that she was close friends with Hilly as the early scenes in the film indicate. Hilly is the head of the socialite pack…what she says and wants goes, unless a young woman is willing to be black listed in town. Skeeter is always portrayed as an ambitious idealist who is disgusted by the racism in her town and the country. Perhaps if there had been a short flashback scene showing a younger, innocent, pre-college Skeeter interacting with Hilly and the other socialites it would have been more believable.
Having one of the best ensemble cast in a movie this year with performances that will stay with you long after you leave the theater, The Help is a touching, inspirational and at times an overly dramatic film that you should not miss.
The Help opened in theaters on August 10, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for thematic material.
More on The Help:
– Photo gallery
– Behind the scenes featurette
– Cast list, running time, and resources