Aug 16, 2011

Film Review: The Help

Hilly, Skeeter, Minny (with pie), and Aibileen
The Help is about a girl named Skeeter (adorable nickname!) who is really, really miffed about losing the maid who raised her (adorable lost youth!) and who wants a job with a big, fancy publishing house (adorable goals!). When she notices that the maids who work for her childhood friends are being mistreated, she decides to write (and I am using that term
loosely) a book with their testimonials, giving a voice to a previously unheard people. The film then spends two hours going through the lives of the maids as they work for the terrible women in Skeeter's home town, who are all lead by Hilly Holbrook (played brilliantly by the often cartoonish and never better Bryce Dallas Howard). Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, has to walk the line between polite southerner and truth seeker.

Chastain, rockin' it.
Before I get into picking apart the movie, I should say that it is very good. The acting, especially, is top notch. Emma Stone has never put her gangly sassiness to better use, and Sissy Spacek (as Hilly's Mom), Octavia Spencer (as maid Minny, who has a spectacular chocolate pie) and Allison Janney (as Skeeter's doltish mother) are all top notch. The acting grand prizes, however, belong to Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote and Viola Davis as Aibileen, the main housekeeper in the film and quite possibly the film's protagonist. Chastain in particular makes the most of the material she's given. Besides one intensely emotional scene, the whole character could have been played for camp value. Instead, Chastain (who I have only seen in the snore-fest The Tree of Life and one pretty forgettable episode of Veronica Mars) plays the part with this sincere, heart-breakingly sweet quality that is completely endearing. She is, in a word, scrumptrulescent.

Davis, meanwhile, is the heart of the movie. The movie may treat some serious issues lightly, but Davis resists it at every turn, turning her small moments with the girl she's raising into the quietest powerhouse performance I've ever seen. Davis is beyond reproach.

The movie, meanwhile, is not. While it is a delightful film with great acting and period costumes and in-jokes (oh, I swear some day someone's going to say cigarettes cause cancer - lol), the film suffers from two huge problems. First, there is a Disney veneer over every frame, forcing the film to stay light and breezy even when the characters are dealing with serious issues. Even Medgar Ever's assassination doesn't derail the film for very long. Jim Crow laws are touched on but only really represented by Hilly Holbrook's new potential law requiring maids to use an outside toilet and one scene involving Aibileen that I won't spoil here. There are flashes of meaning, where the film is aching to explore larger issues, but that's swept under the rug so we can spend more time watching Skeeter's blossoming, unimportant relationship with Piz from Veronica Mars (I swear that I am not trying to add in tons of VM references). And, possibly a little spoiler, everything basically works out in the end.

Another problem is the inconsistency of the movie. The scenes constantly shift from light and bubbly and dark and important. You laugh, you cry, you laugh -- sometimes in the time span of one scene. At the screening I attended, the audience laughed hardest right before a main character got beaten with a frying pan (and guilty looks were exchanged between quite a few theater-goers). That kind of shock value should be the realm of Final Destination movies, not this one. It's cheap emotional teasing - the trailer alone is emotionally confusing:

The history of the United States of America can be seen, at the very least, as embarrassing. There are a lot of things, like our long history of institutionalized racism, that people like to forget about. Heck, I didn't even know who Medgar Evers was until he was mentioned on Mad Men. So, while it does whitewash over a lot of history, The Help gets points for actually examining a society that is not too far removed from our own. While the whole thing does feel a little bit like 'White Lady Fixes Everything In Racist Town,' it's still not an apologetic film. Of course, even without its social and historical relevance, I would still definitely recommend this movie for the very strong performances and nice visuals. Plus, it's probably going to be nominated for a ton of Golden Globes. Just for the ladies though, because there were only about 3 men in this thing.

Film Grade: B
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