The Help is the personification of “middle of the road.” And while it is nearly impossible to say that about a piece of art/entertainment without it seeming like a critical bitch slap, I don’t mean it derisively. The film does not do much of anything that I want out of my cinema, but it strikes me as the kind of film that a large section of the population will respond to. After my press screening I was discussing the film with a bartender and he asked if it was a ‘chick film.’ To which I said, “Sort of. My mom will love it. Your mom will probably love it too.” And the bartender responded with an accepting shrug, “Hey, moms need movies too.” The wisdom of bartenders, my friends.
The film is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, and tells the story of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring young writer who has bucked the social norms of her early-1960’s Jackson, Mississippi home by going to college instead of finding a man and starting a family. After graduating, Skeeter returns to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), her family’s beloved African-American maid, has mysteriously quit, and Skeeter suspects there is something her mother (Allison Janney) isn’t telling her. This turns out to be merely the first of many disappointments for Skeeter, who quickly finds herself out-of-touch with Jackson and its traditional and racist ways. Her former bestie, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the worst — passionately leading a campaign to get all her friends to build special bathrooms for “the help,” and going so far as to fire her own maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer), when Minny uses the wrong bathroom. Inspired by the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, Skeeter decides she wants to write a book comprised of real-life stories from Jackson’s black serving class. The story gets going when Skeeter convinces Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a broken woman who lost her son to cruel Jim Crow hospital laws when he was injured at his construction job, to help her learn about “the help.”
Stockett’s novel has been something of a sensation with the “book club” crowd, and wound up becoming a major sleeper hit. It also sparked some controversy, due to the fact that Stockett is white. Considering that the book is semi-autobiographical on Stockett’s part, the controversy seems like knee-jerk over-reaction to me, though I admittedly know little about the details of the criticisms. In any case, I imagine the offended parties are not going to be made any happier by the fact that the film was written and directed by a white guy — actor turned director Tate Taylor. Anyway…
I’d like to stress that The Help is not a bad film. I found it enjoyable enough, and like I said, your mom – if she’s anything like my mom – will probably love it. I’m stressing this now because beyond simply saying “the film works and will appeal to those it is meant to appeal to” I don’t feel inspired to overtly praise much of it. But my negative comments are more about what was keeping the film from rising above average, versus what was making it crap.
I do have two positive things to say:
1) Although the script doesn’t really allow for any performance to truly explode off the screen, the acting is across-the-board good. This is the kind of film that the Academy loves to pluck performances from. I’ll be surprised if Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer don’t get nods, and Emma Stone will likely get a Golden Globe nomination. This is a particularly big coup for Spencer, who has been kicking around since the 90’s with reasonable bit-part success, but little in the way of meaty roles. Minny is a role crafted to steal scenes — the kind of role that you’d expect to see a far more established star in. And Spencer is quite funny. Though it is hard to call someone a “scene stealer” when it seems like they’re supposed to be stealing scenes. For me the true scene stealer is The Tree of Life‘s Jessica Chastain, as Celia Foote, a lonely va-va-voom white trash gal who is denied access into Jackson’s social circle because she married Hilly’s ex-boyfriend. Celia is a very obvious character given a lot of clunky and cliche comedy bits, but Chastain somehow makes them not only work but carry some emotion too. Celia also benefits from the fact that she is one of the few original feeling characters in a film otherwise comprised of been-there-seen-that conventional types. And for a film about the tragic things that have happened to African-Americans, she actually has the film’s most devastating sequence (which involves the most fucked-up tree planting scene ever).
2) The film also has an excellent soundtrack, featuring an array of white and black performers, like Johnny Cash & June Carter, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Mavis Staples, and some interesting lesser remembered performers like The Orlons and Webb Pierce.
Speaking of been-there-seen-that conventionality — as someone who actively enjoys the derivative nature of classic Slasher movies, action flicks, and Westerns, it seems disingenuous, or at least clueless, to hold The Help‘s cliches against it. But it is nonetheless a very cliche film (I also doubt that many CHUD readers are huge geeks for the Racial Strife subgenre). Aside from one great, funny twist involving Minny and Hilly and a pie, the movie is extremely predictable and very on-the-nose. Skeeter is a lamely under-cooked “modern woman” hero, who it seems we’re supposed to like just because she’s not racist and not obsessed with getting married. The scenes involving her writing (which isn’t actually that much of the film) feel fresh, but everything else feels like it came out of a Rom-Com 1.0 program, complete with standard jokes about what an awkward tomboy she is — I wouldn’t have been surprised if the film featured a scene of her comically tripping into a fountain because she can’t walk in heels. Emma Stone is inherently charming and likable, which saves the character, and at the end of the day Skeeter serves the movie as she should. A bigger problem is our villain. Bryce Dallas Howard is good as Hilly, but Hilly is such a stock Racist White Bitch character that she is rendered completely uninteresting. You always know exactly what she is going to do/say in every scene. She also lacks a big “villain moment” where she does something truly terrible. Don’t get me wrong, she is definitely an awful person, but considering we’re dealing with a rather obvious middle-of-the-road movie, it seems strange that her biggest villain moment is when she refuses to lend her new maid money, which isn’t really villainous at all, especially for a character that has already been established as a bitch. This leads me to a larger issue — how safe The Help is.
The primary conflict in the film is the idea that our heroes will be in big, big trouble if anyone ever finds out that they’re working on this book. The real-life murder of Civil Right activist Medgar Evers plays a part in the film as historical backdrop (seen on TV news). The implicit tension is clearly the idea that Aibileen or Minny might be physically harmed – even killed – for telling their stories. But at some point during the film I realized nothing bad was ever going to happen. There are low-points, but this is a feel-good film and in the end everything works out wonderfully for everyone, and characters who should not be easily forgiven for shitty things they’ve done somehow re-earn love through minimal penitence. The film’s complete lack of true conflict is most apparent in Hilly’s comeuppance, which fits in a subsection of antagonist downfalls I like to call “the tuba full of poop” — as in the villain falls off a stage and lands head first into a tuba, full of poop. The reason for the specificity of this term is a long story, but my friend and I started using it to refer to movies (usually teen comedies) in which the villain has something demeaning yet incredibly inconsequential happen to them during the climax, be it having their clothes pulled off in front of a crowd, a bucket of paint thrown on them, or, say, falling head first into a tuba full of shit. What is revealing about these moments is that they retroactively point out how surface-level the antagonist’s threat actually was. In a movie about a serial killer that killer needs to either be thrown in jail or killed himself/herself, otherwise the killing will continue — that is what’s coming to them. If all your villain has coming to them is having their pants pulled down during the prom and people pointing and laughing, they can’t have been much of an obstacle. Such moments are great for silly comedies, but you would expect something like The Help to have a more potent danger. Without spoiling anything I’ll tell you Hilly’s comeuppance — she gets a cold-sore and someone’s mom yells at her. Her tuba full of poop isn’t even in front of a crowd! She effectively falls into the tuba of poop with only two people watching. I’m not saying The Help needed Hilly to partake in a lynching or two to be a good movie, but the film does feel like it is trying to go for something deeper than Driving Miss Daisy warm smiles, light laughter, and happy tears.
The movie also has to jump through some hoops to make Skeeter’s book project seem noble instead of exploitative, which is side-stepping some potentially good drama, I think. It also makes Skeeter feel like less of a real person. At the end of the film she initially turns down an offer to go work for a publisher in New York, because she doesn’t want to leave Aibilieen and Minny behind, forcing Aibileen and Minny to talk her into it. In heart-warming-movie terms this is basically the equivalent of the stupid moment in action movies where our hero doesn’t shoot the villain (cause they’re so “good”), but then the villain pulls out a gun forcing the hero to shoot them. A young woman driven enough to disengage herself from the rigid gender roles and pressures of Southern early-1960’s life, all to pursue her dream of moving away and becoming a writer… she turns down an offer to work for a NY publisher? Uh huh. Cheap hero-building moment.
Those criticisms aside, The Help is a well-made movie. Its weak, cliched scenes are off-set by some legitimately funny scenes and a few moments that will surely make many people tear up. I’ve already recommended it my mom.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars