It’s always fun to go see film adaptations of the latest “best-seller.” Not because of the movie itself, but the audience which usually consists of either die-hard fans of the novel eager to see what’s been changed, or those who haven’t read the book but want to see what all the fuss is about. I have never read Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help (it’s one on a long 9-page list of books I own that I have yet to read), but wanted to see the movie based on its own merits. In the end, having never read the book, I strongly enjoyed The Help and its amazing story and diverse ensemble of beautiful leading ladies.
Skeeter (Emma Stone) is a recent college graduate trying to get a job in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter dreams of being a writer but can’t seem to move beyond writing a cleaning column for a Jackson newspaper. Unfortunately, there are bigger problems going on in Jackson, namely the abuse and discrimination suffered by the African-American housekeepers only referenced as “the help” by their employers. Skeeter decides to write a book about what the help go through, raising children that end up becoming their abusive employers. Mild-mannered Aibileen (Viola Davis) decides to come forward and help Skeeter setting off a chain of events with the whole town in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
What writer and director Tate Taylor crafts is a tale about women finding their strength despite a town’s racism and traditions. Civil Rights stories have been told countless times but this film discusses the fine line between slave and housekeeper. The early 1960s as depicted in the film is at the very beginning of the Civil Rights movement when the select few that did stand up for their rights were being brutally repressed, seen in the film with the story of Medgar Evers. In the town of Jackson the families who have maids assume their not racist but that there are differences between the races to the point that the two need separate bathrooms. The characters of Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) aren’t slaves, but second class citizens despite the generations they sometimes spend raising children from birth to adulthood. The story being told can be seen even in our current society. Just insert Hispanic or any other minority and the film is relevant. The Help doesn’t try to get bogged down and stuck in the history, instead it settles on a fresh tale of a group of women standing up for their own beliefs, whether they’re right or wrong.
The film’s greatest accomplishments can be seen in the group of women assembled to make the film. Viola Davis as Aibileen is a performance worthy of an Oscar (and she’s already been nominated once). Aibileen has grown up in the domestic lifestyle and has raised children for years, yet those children are her oppressors. Davis has such a silent strength and defiance about her that whether she’s smiling or not you know she’s fighting back. Octavia Spencer is also delightful as the sassy Minny and is one of the main sources of humor. Her scenes with the flighty Celia (Jessica Chastain) are hilarious, sweet, and show off the theme of friendship transcending racial lines.
Emma Stone might be risking overexposure with this being her second film in a little over a month, but she isn’t as prevalent as the marketing would like you to believe. Stone is subtle as the observant Skeeter, comfortable enough to take a backseat and listen to what the maids of Jackson have to say. Stone is funny, charming and strong. It’s nice that, for the most part, her character doesn’t have an interest in finding a man and doesn’t fall to pieces when a man leaves her. Skeeter’s adversary, the evil Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is pure villainy and it’s nice to see Howard embrace it wholeheartedly. Howard hasn’t had much in film lately but here she is a class-A bitch and works every ounce of evil. You’ll love to hate her.
The scene-stealer and most memorable character has to be Jessica Chastain as the dimwitted Celia, a woman who yearns for acceptance and a way to elevate her above her white trash upbringing. Chastain is simply gorgeous and is a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe (take that Michelle Williams and Naomi Watts!). Underneath the sex appeal is a child-like innocence, grace, and sweetness that is sheer joy to witness. She’s the poor girl trampled on by the mean girls of Jackson and her character is probably the only one without a mean-spirited bone in her body. It would be nice to see Chastain’s character hyped more in the trailers because she blew me away.
For the most part The Help is sensational but there are a few nitpicks. At 137 minutes The Help is pretty lengthy. It’s not a pacing issue; the film doesn’t have highs and lows or drag for extended periods. There also wasn’t a lot I felt could have been taken out, it’s just there’s a lot going on. The one bit that could have been removed is Skeeter’s relationship with a man named Stuart. The guy treats her like crap on her first date, redeems himself and the relationship goes absolutely nowhere. The guy literally walks in and out of scenes before breaking up with Skeeter by calling her selfish and deserves to be alone. To add insult to injury is the fact that you see Skeeter fall to pieces before the plot just ends, never to be spoken of again. It’s almost as if the director believed we wouldn’t like Skeeter if she didn’t get crapped on by a male. Taking it out would have actually made her character stronger, and from what I’ve heard there is no confrontation scene in the book making the addition even more suspect. Her character seemed far too strong to lose it over a guy who does treat her badly throughout the movie.
Regardless my problems with The Help are minimal and, having never read the book, I was swept up by these women and loved the story that unfolded. The humor and story is brisk, fresh and sweet making it a well done movie worthy of seeing this weekend!
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.