The Help (2011)
Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Cecily Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, and Sissy Spacek
Directed by Tate Taylor
Twenty-three year old Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring author who, in an attempt to win over a well-to-do big city publisher (Mary Steenburgen), decides to write a book filled with the musings and daily routines of the African American maids in her town in Mississippi. Naturally, because of racial tensions a half century ago, Skeeter has to keep her meetings with Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) -- a maid and nanny to her employers with a strong, yet seemingly silent personality -- and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) -- a sassy gal who after being fired by the uppity Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds herself working for the eccentric Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) -- a secret. Yes, I've thrown out a lot of names there, but the crux of the story remains the same -- we're looking at race relations between whites and blacks in 1960s Mississippi and for most those relationships still weren't ideal.
This is territory we've seen explored before in movies and it's not that The Help does anything particularly unique. It uses stock characters (Bryce Dallas Howard's bitchy Hilly is particularly one-note despite attempts to add depth thanks to an enjoyable performance by Howard), a grooving 60s soundtrack, and feels like something right out of the Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes early '90s era in looks and tone.
However, the film succeeds thanks to a cast devoid of one bad egg. Even when the story falters -- let's just leave the attempts at Skeeter trying to find love on the cutting room floor in the director's cut, shall we? -- the ladies simply compel you to keep your eyes fixated on the screen. Emma Stone is charming in what is one of the lesser developed characters in the script. Jessica Chastain (Hollywood's It Girl in 2011) was a hoot as Celia, getting opportunities to showcase her comedic and dramatic talents. The movie kicked into high gear once Chastain's character was introduced and she lit up the screen whenever she appeared. Similarly, Octavia Spencer provides some light moments, too, and once Chastain's Celia comes in to the picture, the character of Minnie is given a much greater depth than the rather one-notedness she had the beginning of the film.
Still, when one remembers The Help, their mind will immediately shift to Viola Davis who gives a moving, quiet, and powerful performance. There's a fierceness in her eyes throughout much of the film -- a pain and anguish that she doesn't really express vocally, but is intensely felt nonetheless. This type of understated performance is the opposite of showy, but demonstrates why Davis is worthy of all the Oscar buzz she's been receiving.
I really don't have a whole lot bad to say about The Help which I must admit surprises me. Even if the film was a bit flawed here and there, it's still overwhelmingly enjoyable to watch. Sure, writer-director Tate Taylor doesn't take too many risks, but he culls some amazing performances from a talented group of ladies.
The RyMickey Rating: B