MOVIE REVIEW: The Help
A lovely and earnest throwback to the Women’s pictures of the 1940’s, The Help buzzes with energy and passion for life’s inalienable rights. It’s constructed as an American pastoral of sorts, seamlessly merging the contrasting experiences of many female characters with larger issues of race, gender, and hierarchy. Ultimately, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Even if villainy and honor are often seen as clear-cut composites, there’s more than enough grey area in between the familiar conventions to make an impact. In that sense, The Help is a rare Hollywood film primarily for adults.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s hit bestseller, The Help envisions 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi as both a battleground for change and a crippling platform for continued segregation. Medgar Evers’s assassination and the Civil Rights movement are on the cusp of causing a social revolution, but the tense dilemmas often linger in the background for long stretches of the story, revealing a warm Southern landscape defined by great cooking, therapeutic writing, and gestating family histories. These characters are women who take in and consider whatever moment they experience, whether defined by joy or hate. Protest occurs in the quiet details of life, with each woman spending ample amounts of time with both their friends and enemies. In this sense, The Help turns out to be just as much a “hang out” picture as the great Rio Bravo and Dazed and Confused.
Wholly concerned with the experiences of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and sisters on both sides of the tracks, The Help sports an impressive cast of actors that continually shine despite its lackluster and sometimes terribly overblown screenplay. Instead of a central story, we get multiple subplots that vary in power and weight. Ambitious young journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson to find her old friends, including a powerful and evil debutante named Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), leading the charge for racial segregation. Skeeter decides to write a book from the perspective of the black maids running these white households, a brilliant act of civil disobedience that stems from her quiet anger toward the town’s racist ideologies. At the center of Skeeter’s project are two brave women: Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), both torn between their devotion to the white children they’ve helped raise and the debilitating institution their degrading servitude represents.
Multiple stories overlap and converge, usually through familiar confrontations about trust and friendship. Yet, within the narrative conventionality a burning desire for expression emerges in the film’s smaller moments. Whether it’s Skeeter’s excited walk down a country lane flanked by willow trees, Aibileen’s infectious smile in close-up, or Minny’s culinary civil disobedience, The Help is ripe with subversive treasures to behold. But it’s Jessica Chastain’s vulnerable and saucy turn as social outcast Celia Foote that becomes the film’s beating heart, a genuine soul yearning to live life to the fullest in every waking moment despite being denied that right by her peers. Hilly and the forceful Minny inevitably become permanently intertwined, wonderfully fitting since each is essentially a vibrant sculptor in the art of perseverance.
Men are really of no concern in The Help, and when one enters the story during brief interludes you can almost here the other characters perform a collective groan. No, this is a woman’s world, a woman’s war for equality, and each struggle for self-reflection and self-confidence are entirely connected to the female experience. The Helpmay delve deep into the well of saccharine sentimentality, but more often than not it’s entirely earned. In the end, the most lasting kind of progress comes from life’s simple pleasures: short bursts of passionate prose, a lip-smacking batch of fried chicken, and long stroll down a shady street. With friends like these, anything seems possible.