Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: "The Help"

It's grown-up time. Summer has exhausted its silos of slo-mo explosions, CGI critters and second-rate super-heroes. So who's ready for a touching, serious film that should get attention come Oscar time?

"The Help," based on the popular book by Kathryn Stockett, is a look at the relationships between African-American maids in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s and the white families they work for. Written and directed smartly by Tate Taylor, it's a movie in the mold of weepy chick flicks, but with more brains and gumptions than we're used to.

Yes, it's the sort of film that looks at the plight of oppressed black characters through the eyes of a white protagonist, who swoops in to save them -- or at least fortifies their bravery enough to stand up for themselves.

But I found it to be a touching journey that manages to make most of the black and white characters relatable. And "The Help" has a surprisingly funny streak, in that tried-and-true laughing-through-the-tears way.

Viola Davis gives a knockout performance as Aibileen, the long-suffering maid to the Leefolt family. Her duties include cooking and cleaning, but her primary task is tending to the clan's offspring. By her own reckoning, Aibileen has raised 17 children, but "they always turn out like their mommas."

The greatest strength of "The Help" is in examining the sclerotic entrapment of the Jim Crow South, where black maids were adored by the children to whom they had a closer affection than their own parents, but who grow up to enforce the unspoken codes of segregation and subjugation.

It's easy to talk about the illogical mindset of that time and place, where people were terrified to deviate from the social norm because "that's the way things have always been." This movie brings the contradictions of the pre-civil rights era to full, fleshy life.

Emma Stone, who between "Easy A," "Crazy, Stupid, Love." and this film is quickly establishing herself as the most ambitious actress of her generation, plays Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, recently graduated from Ole Miss with ambitions of becoming a writer. She tackles the cleaning advice column in the local paper, but soon hatches a plan to tell the stories of "the help," the gray-uniformed maids who silently serve as the ties that bind the community.

Skeeter is initially motivated by selfish reasons: she feels ostracized by the women her age who have all gotten married already, and the beloved maid who raised her, Constantine (Cicely Tyson, in convincing aging makeup), has abruptly ended her decades-long service with the family without any explanation from her brittle mother (Allison Janney).

Skeeter's mother is less than subtle about her wish that her daughter would give up this crazy notion of a career and find a husband: "Your eggs are dying. Would it kill you to go on a date?"

But as the civil rights movement finally makes its way to Jackson, Skeeter joins forces with Aibileen to tell their stories in hopes of changing things, or at least bringing them to light.

The third leg of their triad of strength is Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, a woman whose spirit is indomitable, and whose cooking is the best in Mississippi. Minny instructs her teen daughter not to sass the white folks, but doesn't take her own advice.

The heavy of the film is Bryce Dallas Howard, the angelic-looking red-headed actress who shows plenty of brimstone as Hilly Holbrook, the queen bee of the social set who rules with a velvet fist. Hilly thinks of herself as compassionate because she wants to maintain the current social arrangement as benevolently as possible -- such as mandating separate bathrooms in white homes for the help, because "they carry different diseases than we do."

Hilly has a run-in with Minny that compels the latter to take her revenge with an act she comes to dub The Terrible Awful. Minny asks God's forgiveness for her sin, but doesn't seem very regretful about it.

An unexpected character is Celia Foote, a spitfire blonde who lives on the edge of Jackson and can't break Hilly's vice grip over the Junior League set. She's played by Jessica Chastain in a role that seems breathy and girly at first, but she finds some pluck through a growing bond with Minny.

"The Help" is like a heaping helping of comfort food mixed with a nutritional social message delivered without preachiness or schmaltz. What satisfying cinematic meal.

3.5 stars out of four

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