Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Help (2011)


First, let it be said that this is not the kind of movie I usually see in theatres.  If a movie can be described as "sweeping,"  "inspirational," "gut-wrenching," or "heartwarming," I usually give it a wide berth.  But a friend wanted to see it, and since I liked the book, I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm glad I did.  I actually really liked this movie. 
The story itself isn't much, I suppose, and while Emma Stone is charming enough as Skeeter Phelan, the college grad and would-be journalist "heroine" of the story, the real focus is on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the two maids who help her create her first masterpiece.  The book, of course, is about the "help"--the black women who work in white homes, cooking, cleaning house, and often raising the white children.   The story is set during the Civil Rights movement--Medgar Evers and President Kennedy both die (offscreen) during the course of the film--but the characters are quick to distinguish their efforts from "Civil Rights."  They're just telling a story.

The true charm of this film is in the compelling performances of Davis and Spencer.  Davis has a gravitas and depth that show the audience what is at stake, what these women go through in the course of serving white families.  Spencer's brilliant comic timing and priceless facial express provide the laughter the audience needs to comfortably digest a film about such complex and troubling times.  Chastain, who I've only seen in Veronica Mars, proves well worthy of her current status as up-and-comer (she is appearing in something like 10 films from 2011 to 2012) as the endearing yet oblivious white trash Celia Foote.  Bryce Dallas Howard is eerily vicious and terrifying as the head deb of the Jackson social community--clever, power-hungry, and vindictive, she makes the other characters' eggshell treatment of her believable.

Leslie Jordan (last seen--by me--as Beverly Leslie on Will & Grace) has a scene-stealing turn as the editor of the Jackson Journal, and we even get to see another Veronica Mars alum makes an appearance (Chris Lowell, aka 'Piz').  Allison Janney and Mary Steenburgen play their roles well enough, though I had trouble buying Janney as the sickly socialite mother of the heroine--she always strikes me (perhaps unfairly) as an inherently strong woman, unimpressed by things like status and appearance.  Also, the movie producers did a number on Allison Janney's character, making her much more sympathetic, and giving her a redemption arc entirely missing from the book. 

All in all I enjoyed it.  The movie has been criticized as not being gritty or rough edged enough to really communicate the horror of the Civil Rights years in the South.  But then, the movie (and the book before it) were never about the murders and beatings and sit-ins.  Stockett wrote about the social harm that non-segregationists suffered, and the complex dynamic of white families whose children were raised by women considered too "dirty" to share the family's bathroom facilities, and who were often eventually despised by the very children they loved and essentially parented.  On those terms, the movie--and the book--succeed.

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