★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rated PG13/146 min
One of the most anticipated films of the (late) summer that isn’t a 3-D comic book sequel, prequel or remake is the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling novel of the same name. Fans of the book can nitpick over how faithful the film is or isn’t (my verdict: beats me, I haven’t read the book and am too busy finally diving into The Hunger Games). Strictly from a film stand point, the movie of The Help is less than great but has enough good performances and strong scenes to recommend it. A more seasoned director, tighter screenplay and a better handle on tonal shifts could have made this truly special. As is, it’s a crowd-pleaser and will give you a good cry.
Emma Stone stars as Skeeter, a newspaper writer living in Mississippi during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, who is troubled by the casual racism she see all around her. She devises a highly illegal plan to interview the African-American servants working for cruel white employers and record their testimonies into a tell-all book. After some hesitation, the long suffering Aibileen (Viola Davis) comes forward, revealing a multitude of secrets and abuses and encourages others to participate.
The film is too long and tries to cram a 451-page book and all of its major and minor characters into a single film. Many side characters, like the ones played by Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson, make lasting impressions but are on screen too briefly to fully flesh out their roles. There’s also a romantic subplot that goes nowhere and adds a needless 15 minutes to an already plump 146-minute running time.
Also, the movie is a total fantasy, depicting a form of justice that never took place during a painful period of U.S. history. While well intentioned and likely to introduce many young viewers to the realities of the period, it inevitably feels white-washed and sanitized for a mainstream audience. Fried Green Tomatoes remains the gold standard for this genre of Southern Equality Period Piece. For all the dramatic turns in the last half, what most will remember about this movie is the secret ingredient in a slice of chocolate pie.
Octavia Spencer’s performance as the sassy Minny is sometimes too broad and approaches caricature but Davis is typically exceptional and has the most powerful scenes. Also terrific are an unrecognizable Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard, chillingly embodying a smiling, socially accepted bigot.
Stone initially seems miscast, too modern and out of her league with these more seasoned actresses but she grew on me. Skeeter is more of a plot device than a plausible character and a cliché in these types of movies. As usual, even though the main characters are black, there’s typically a plucky white crusader who inspires the oppressed to rise up against bigotry. Unlike A Time to Kill, where Matthew McConaughey’s character and performance were well measured against Samuel L. Jackson’s, the contrivance of Skeeter’s motivations and the creation of her book are both historical wish fulfillment and utter Hollywood hokum.
Still, I’m recommending the film for the fine work of the actors, particularly Davis’ knockout final scene with Howard. Chastain’s work is a joy- her character seems dim at first but tenderly reveals layers of pain and loneliness.
Even as we’re early into the 21st century, the need for films that promote interracial friendships and people standing up to oppression and racism is still immediate. The Help is uneven but has real fire in its belly.