© 2011 Ray Wong
Once in a while there comes a "chick flick" that reaches past its limited audience base because it delivers something that is truly universal. The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, is not your ordinary "women's story."
Eugenia "Skeeter" (Emma Stone) recently graduated from college and landed a job with the Jackson Journal writing an housekeeping advice column. She needs help, so she asks if domestic help Aibileen (Viola Davis) can assist her. While listening and observing Aibileen, Skeeter realizes there are stories behind these American-American women whose only jobs are working as "the help" and taking care of white folks' babies. She wants to write a book from their perspective.
However, writing such a thing is not only dangerous for the women, but also illegal in Mississippi. Even though often mistreated, Aibileen is scared for her job and safety. But the social injustice finally convinces her that her stories must be heard, and she agrees to work with Skeeter. She also convinces her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), the "sassy-mouth" help for Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), to participate.
Hilly is a mean-spirited social climber. And a racist. Her influences in her circle creates even more hostile and unfair treatments for the help. Skeeter is determined to expose all that injustice while keeping herself out of trouble. While America is on the verge of the civil rights movement, Skeeter and Aibileen have the utmost responsibility and urgency to get their stories out.
Emma Stone (Crazy, Stupid, Love) has always been fun to watch, truly the rising star with a unique onscreen personality. Here, however, she is able to keep her larger-than-life persona in check and play the role effectively. Her Skeeter is strong-willed but vulnerable, progressive but also a product of her environment, kind but also defiant. Good job.
But the real star of the movie is Viola Davis (Eat Pray Love). As Aibileen, she is strong but delicate, humble but determined, soft but courageous. Davis's amazing performance helps lift the great story to an even higher level. I expect her to be recognized comes the award season.
The cast is outstanding as well. Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter) makes us want to slap her around, and when her comeuppance is revealed, we cheer with enthusiasm. Octavia Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks) is marvelous as Minny, and she manages to escape the cliches while portraying the sassy-mouth woman. Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) is equally fantastic as the town's outcast. Her relationship with Minny is one of the best things in the movie. Veterans Allison Janney (Juno), Sissy Spacek (Get Low) and Mary Steenburgen (The Proposal) add class to the already-classy production.
Written and directed by Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People), the screenplay adheres to the novel with its wonderful characters, interesting plot, and universal themes. The rich historical backdrop is fully realized, and the dialogue is strong and purposeful. Taylor skillfully and slowly unfolds the plot, which is strongly character-driven. With a large cast of characters, Taylor is able to keep the story straight, never leaving the focus and always keeping the characters and their relationships at the center.
While the subject matters and story are serious, there are also many light-hearted moments and laughs, especially through the outspoken character Minny. The screenplay builds on the foundation of the wonderful novel by Stockett, and the characters and their relationships leap off the screen. These colorful characters give the story the heart and soul, but also much laughs and tears. It's a cliche, but you will laugh and you will cry. While the film is filled with many great moments, the best line belongs to Sissy Spacek, and the final scene is devastatingly poignant.
I'm very impressed with the production. Everything from the art direction to costumes to cinematography to the acting is top-notch. During a summer of lackluster blockbusters, The Help will be remembered as a classic without much help.
Stars: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Chris Lowell, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen
Director: Tate Taylor
Writers: Tate Taylor (based on novel by Kathryn Stockett)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and language
Running Time: 137 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.2 out of 10