Review: The Help

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Viola Davis in The Help

Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help has been discussed in many book groups since it was published in 2009. Given some of the controversy the book has stirred up, I went into the film adaptation of the novel with some trepidation. I needn't have worried. In the hands of the expert actresses involved, aided by a touching screenplay and dedicated direction from actor/writer/director Tate Taylor, The Help is one of the best movies I've seen this year.

I won't go into much detail about any way the film differs from the book, because I only remembered main plot points and the strong female characters involved in the novel. Although the book is told from three different viewpoints, the movie The Help is narrated by maid Aibileen (Viola Davis). Aibileen works as a nanny/maid to a middle-class family in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. She loves her charge Mae Mobley fiercely, but knows that she can only do so much to make up for the lack of love the girl receives from her mother Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly). She lives alone in a small home where a photo of her son holds a place of prominence.

Aibileen's best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) used to work for dotty Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), but now suffers under her tyrannical daughter Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) ... until Hilly fires Minny for using the house toilet (instead of her own "special" Jim Crow toilet outside). Minny is down and out until nouveau riche Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) hires her.

Meanwhile, "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) -- a bridge buddy to Elizabeth and Hilly who has returned home after college to care for her ailing mother (Allison Janney) -- is a writer who wants to publish something besides the home hints column of the local paper. A New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) suggests she write about what she knows, so Skeeter asks Aibileen, and eventually Minny, for their stories about serving Jackson familes.

The talent involved in The Help is mindblowing. Davis' Aibileen has a soft sternness; she carries the film on her tired shoulders with a sense of gravitas. Minny, as played by Spencer, takes no guff and delivers most of the movie's laughs. Celia Foote could have been an incidental character, but Chastain infuses her with so much warmth and ditziness that she becomes an integral force in the film. Janney and Stone portray a complicated mother-and-daughter relationship in a real and honest fashion. I should note that the biggest audience applause when the credits rolled went to Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson (who portrays Skeeter's nanny, Constantine).

The Help does an impressive job of pulling the viewer in, and more than adequately depicts the separate-but-(un)equal race relationships. The danger these women face as they collaborate on Skeeter's book is serious. The humiliation that Minny and Aibileen are made to suffer in their work situation is tangible. The work and assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers plays a certain role in The Help, as well. One of the most memorable sequences has Aibileen running fearfully through the dark streets of the town after being kicked off a bus the night of Evers' murder.

I could keep gushing about the many wonderful aspects of The Help: Thomas Newman's soundtrack, the character actors, the language in the script... the only point not completely in its favor is the length of the film. The movie clocks in at about 2.5 hours. It doesn't drag at any point, and I never checked my cell phone clock, but I was surprised that it was almost 10 pm when I got out of a 7:30 screening.

Cynically, I wonder if the low number of men in the cast will hurt this film's chances when award season rolls around. Not that awards mean much anyway, but The Help and the performances in it deserve any plaudits they can get.