The Help is a near perfect blend of comedy and drama. The film manages to stay light enough to be entertaining while tackling a variety of deep subjects and a difficult time period. The strength of the film can easily be credited to its extremely talented ensemble cast.
Directed by Tate Taylor (who also wrote the screenplay) and based on Kathryn Stockett’s successful novel (which I have not read), The Help stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney (who is not in the movie nearly enough), Anna Camp, Eleanor Henry, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson (who delivers a lot of the film’s emotion with just a look in her eyes), Mike Vogel, Brian Kerwin, and the legendary Sissy Spacek (who makes you crack up in just about every scene she is in).
Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, the film follows the ambitious Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Stone) – who wants to be a serious writer despite being saddled with the local paper’s homemaking advice column.
Skeeter has just returned home from college and arrives to find her nanny/maid Constantine (Tyson) has quit and or been fired (depending on who you ask). Her mother Charlotte (Janney) won’t go into great detail, and just wants to move on to Skeeter’s more pressing social duties with the other girls (who are now wives) of the local social club circuit.
The social circle is led by queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Howard) – who has very strict ideas about how the maids (who all happen to be black) should be treated and what they are not allowed to do in the homes. She tolerates her senile mother Missus Walters (Spacek) and is very verbally abusive to her mother’s maid Minny Jackson (Spencer) – who also happens to be the best cook in town.
Since Skeeter doesn’t know a thing about cleaning house, she asks a friend if she could get tips from her maid Aibileen Clark (Davis). She also questions the way the maids are treated by their employers and the level of disrespect and racism they are forced to ignore on a daily basis so they can earn the very small paycheck they get for doing their jobs.
This leads Skeeter to approach Aibileen about writing a book made up of stories from the local maids about the people they work for and the things they have seen and heard. Naturally, all the names would be changed, but it is still a very radical and dangerous idea to do in the 1960s.
Aibileen is not sold on the idea, but comes to see the value in such a book as the film gets moving. They also get the quick-tempered and opinionated Minny to join. Minny has a LOT of dirt and a secret she swears will keep them all safe from Hilly Holbrook and other white people once the book is published. The secret is both disgusting and hilarious at the same time.
In my opinion, the movie gets a little long towards the middle with various subplots that slow it down, but are important to the film. Minny goes to work for Celia Foote (Chastain) – a social pariah for crossing Hilly. Celia is hilarious, but can’t cook to save her life. Or clean. Or do pretty much anything else until Minny shows up to teach her how. She also doesn’t see a thing wrong in treating Minny like an equal and is instantly likeable compared to Hilly.
The film also makes sure to include issues that were facing the country and Mississippi – such as the killing of Medgar Evers. The racism is front and center thanks to Hilly’s “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” (an initiative she pushes for to make a law requiring basically outhouses for the black maids and yard workers so they aren’t using the indoor plumbing of their white employers).
Howard’s Hilly is so over-the-top with her racism and attitude that it comes across as comical (sometimes) and downright nauseating other times. In other words, Howard does an excellent job creating a character you instantly hate and don’t feel sorry for when you discover Minny’s “Terrible Awful.”
The Help is a film filled with so many incredible performances it is impossible to list them all in a short review. Everyone in the film is at the top of the game, believable in their parts, and fully developed as characters. You care about each one of the people in this film, and especially Davis and Spencer.
Davis (who is always a joy to watch on screen) plays Aibileen as quiet, cautious and reserved. She also carries the character with dignity and class. Hilly and her pals can say what they want to her because she knows (and the audience) knows she is better than them.
On the other hand, Spencer plays Minny as someone who is straightforward and will tell you exactly what she thinks – especially if you push her too far. Everything about her character is instantly charming and a little unsettling at the same time.
I am not sure I would want Minny judging my cooking and cleaning skills since I would probably not fall too far from her early opinion of Celia.
Although Stone, Davis, Spencer and Howard deserve a lot of the credit for making The Help a great film, my personal favorite scenes involved Janney, Spacek and Tyson. The three talented actresses aren’t in the film a lot, but they own every scene they are in.
Janney is just perfect in her role, and very believable as the headstrong girl’s mother (especially following a confrontation with an enraged Hilly). Spacek knows how to play the senile mother and milks her screen time for the maximum laughs.
Given how heavy the film gets towards the end, her scenes are a needed laugh at the right time. Tyson is simply mystical as Constantine and it is clear why Skeeter is so upset at her leaving. The audience also feels the pain when Janney’s character reveals the truth behind her leaving their employment – even though Tyson only has a few lines in the scene.
The Blu-ray looks incredible capturing all the color and designs of the time period as well as the great costuming for the women of the film. It also comes loaded with decent features that take you into the making of the film and give you a few deleted scenes that ended on the cutting room floor.
I started watching The Help simply so I could do the review and pass the Blu-ray onto my mother and because I figured my wife would like it. The movie quickly hooked me thanks to the huge amount of talent on the screen. Although I am not sure how it stacks up against the book, I really enjoyed the movie, and would highly recommend it.
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