MOVIE REVIEW: The Help
THE HELP-- 4 STARS
In the classic sports film Caddyshack, the blustering Judge Smails, played by late comedian Ted Knight, proclaimed to an eager caddy "Well, the world needs ditch diggers too." He wasn't placating for a spot with Mike Rowe on Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs. He meant that not everyone is destined to do high things. The little and not-so-glamorous jobs have to be done by someone, likely the ugly, outcast, and uneducated. Just as the wonderful new release, The Help, illustrates, deep down though, everyone is kind, smart, and important.
That's the care-taking mantra that Aibileen Clark (previous DoubtAcademy Award nominee and guaranteed soon-to-be two-time nominee Viola Davis) has used on more than a dozen white children that she has raised as a housemaid in Jackson, Mississippi when we meet her in the early 1960s. Slavery might be abolished, but segregation, Jim Crow laws, and cruel rich white women rule society down there.
The Help, unlike other civil rights era movies, shows a little-seen black female point of view like never before. Not since Hattie McDaniel portrayed Mammy and went on to win the first Oscar for an African-American in 1939's Civil War epic Gone With the Wind have we ever come this close to their unique perspective. The Help stars current Hollywood "It" girl Emma Stone as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, an idealist and recent college grad who wants to crack into major journalism. Reduced to writing the kitchen advice column, she befriends housemaid Aibileen and wants to record her stories from "the help's" point of view. Aibileen is naturally reluctant to air that kind of dirty laundry for fear of retribution and her personal safety. Eventually, Aibileen agrees to help Skeeter in trade for anonymity.
Aibileen's good friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) just recently worked for the worst of Jackson's big-haired gossip community, Mrs. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Minny defies Hilly and ends up working for the bimbo outsider, Celia Foote (The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain). Working in secret, Aibileen and Minny share their stories with Skeeter as history happens around them over the course of the early 1960s. Soon, more maids begin coming to Skeeter and we learn more and more of the difficult workplace lives of Aibileen and Minny.
Writer and director Tate Taylor, working from Kathryn Stockett's hit 2009 novel in just his second feature film, delivers a picture of enormous heart, history, humor, family, power, and emotion. The Help balances the three lead voices wonderfully and molds a book-within-a-book plot that delivers as many tears as it does laughs. Bring your tissues. The movie has an old-fashioned message to share and its worth every second of its 137 minute running time.
What enables The Help to succeed on so many levels is the outstanding ensemble acting. Emma Stone proves she can turn off the witty sarcasm and play an emotional adult role. The West Wing leading lady Allison Janney is perfectly cast as her pushy mother who earns her moments. In another mother role, Sissy Spacek nails her zingers. It's nice to actually see Jessica Chastain vibrantly talk after spending nearly three hours earlier this summer whispering and staring into space in The Tree of Life. Bryce Dallas Howard might just have the hardest job of all in successfully creating such a memorable and loathsome villain.
All of them pale in comparison to Cicely Tyson, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis. Cicely Tyson has a tiny, but important, part that, in just 15 minutes of total screen time, captivates you as much as any of the leads. Octavia Spencer's tough talking Minny steals her scenes with humor, balancing the drama around her. However, she brings a resolve and anger to Minny that never crosses over to crazy. You root for her all movie long. Go ahead and put her name in ink on the nominee list for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar next February. She earns it.
If that wasn't high enough praise, here comes Viola Davis. "Wow" is not a loud enough word to describe her acting. Her Aibileen is a powerhouse performance that is as much about subtlety and restraint as it is about confidence and pride. Viola can say more in a look, a tear, a pause, or a glance than some actors and actresses do in entire movies. When her silent performance combines with the verbal, she takes over The Help, and rightfully so. Every poster and commercial you're going to see for this movie is going to market Emma Stone, but this is undeniably Viola Davis's picture. She's better than just a Best Actress Oscar nominee. Go ahead and hand her the golden trophy right now.
LESSON #1: SEGREGATION IS WRONG-- As aforementioned, while many movies have shown slavery or the Jim Crow South that followed, The Help shows us a deplorable domestic setting of house servants, not seen since Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind. While many of us have seen the iconic images of diners, drinking fountains, and schools, this home life was a little-seen world of segregation worth exposing for its wrongness. It's a shame discrimination and segregation in many forms, while legally outlawed, still exists in too many places and at too many levels.
LESSON #2: THE MANY USES OF CRISCO-- In just a five-minute scene, Minny does for Crisco that My Big Fat Greek Wedding did for Windex. It's a little lesson, but a handy one you'll enjoy.
LESSON #3: THE ROLE OF A CARETAKER-- While dismissed as menial work, the dedication of day care providers, maids, butlers, au pairs, nurses, teachers, and even your weekend babysitter, among others, is no less important that a professional career. They bear the important task of raising, teaching, and influencing our children when parents can't (or won't in some cases). Respect their hard work every chance you get.
LESSON #4: GIVING THE ANONYMOUS A VOICE-- Skeeter's courage to buck the disposition and opinions of her peers' snotty social society to empathize with the help is an extremely commendable thing. Even though it was done anonymously, she gave the nameless a voice and an outlet for the truth.
LESSON #5: THE TRUTH HURTS-- The sugar-honey-iced-tea storm that the published book-within-the-book-within-the-movie, anonymously written or not, put the truth out there and it hurts. You hope that the white perpetrating southern belles took having the truth thrown in their faces to heart and changed their ways. They have no one to blame for their rage, pain, and guilt but themselves. Sometimes a slap in the face is more than needed.