THE HELP (2011) 

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Emma Stone
Bryce Dallas Howard
Viola Davis
Jessica Chastain
Octavia Spencer
Ohna O'Reilly
Allison Janney
Sissy Spacek
Mary Steenburgen
Chris Lowell
Aunjanue Ellis
Anna Camp
Cicely Tyson

Tate Taylor


Time: 112 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Official Website
Genre: Drama

SYNOPSIS: Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, Skeeter (Stone) is a southern society girl who returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends' lives – and a Mississippi town – upside down when she decides to secretly interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families and publish their stories in a book.

A complicated novel about a very touchy subject that still resonates today is brought wonderfully to life by the talent of the films three leading ladies Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer. Stone's measured, heartfelt and mature performance was a revelation considering the light-hearted, sassiness of most of her other roles to date. Skeeter's transformation from a curious college co-ed to a young woman who wants to not only be a serious writer, but one that makes a difference in the world around her is the backbone of the film. Her time away from her childhood friends who are now mothers of their own and the leaders in their community forces her to look at them in a new and not so flattering light and compels her to try to understand the colored side of life in Jackson.

The maids she attempts to get to tell their stories are more than wary, as they could be arrested or worse just for talking to her. Why she picks Abilene and how she gets her to share her history is more complicated in the novel, but it doesn't really matter for those new to the tale. What does matter is how their relationship unfolds and what it eventually means for both her and Abilene's futures. Viola Davis is brilliant, yet again, capturing the intelligence, inner strength, sense of humor and gentle spirit of Abilene, a woman who has no other choice but to take care of white people and their children. She takes pride in her job and develops true love for the babies left in her care forming a lifelong bond, despite being fraught with complex emotions and social restrictions. Her life has been a painful one, however, she still manages to find joy in it too, despite her lack of options. Her character is the soul of the novel and Davis delivers her to the screen in an engaging, honest and heartfelt way. She makes you wish you had someone like her fighting in your corner when you were growing up. I know she was paid to be there, and yet, when it comes to Abilene's interaction with her current "baby" Mae Mobley, the intensity of their connection is palpable.

Her direct opposite on the page and screen is Minny (Spencer), the best cook in the county who's tart tongue and fierce anger at the world's injustice get her into all heaps of trouble with her one-time employer, the uptight, queen bee of Jackson Hilly Holbrook (Howard), a woman who is desperate to keep the status quo of "separate but equal" alive and well at least in her part of the country. Hilly's mean streak forces Minny to do something awful, leaving her no choice but to turn to the only woman in town who will hire her – Celia Foote (Chastain), a low country gal with prodigious physical assets and no household skills who managed to marry the town's most eligible bachelor. Celia's innocence in the ways of Jackson – especially in how ladies are supposed to act towards their maids – and exubarence in the kitchen – she wants to learn how to cook to impress her man – soon break through Minny's hard hearted demeanor. Eventually through several funny and painful events their tentative relationship blossoms into a true friendship. These two characters could have been caricatures, but Spencer and Chastain (who's part is unfortunately greatly condensed in the film) make them funny, distinct, vibrant and intense women you want to spend time with.

"Did you know growing up that one day you'd be a maid?"

My one major complaint about the adaptation is the character of Hilly. I understand that they had to just jump into the meat of the story, as there's a lot of information and characters to cover, however, by doing this it made her just a mean-spirited, racist bitch, instead of a complex woman with serious social hang-ups. I'm not trying to excuse her behavior in the novel or film, but by making her just plain evil instead of flesh and blood, it sort of trivializes the reality of the situation. In the novel, the slow reveal of her true character and intentions, forced you to take a hard look at what you might have done in the same circumstances, even those of us born after the 60s and not from the South. We'd all like to think that we would have been Skeeter and stood up for equality, but as history shows us that was clearly not the case. Howard has the unfortunate task here of portraying someone with no likable traits at all. (By contrast, Spacek gives a hilarious turn as her supposedly senile mother.) The film would have been better served with a more developed, less shrill characterization. Is it fun to watch her get her comeuppance again and again? It sure is, but the reality of the situation would be far from funny if any of these things happened in real life.

Skeeter's relationships with her mother, her childhood maid Constantine and boyfriend are also somewhat truncated here, which is a shame because they each really have a hand in the woman she becomes and why she fights so hard to get this book published, the reasons of which are somewhat glossed over in exchange for giving the film a greater, simpler purpose – to expose a side of life no one wants to talk about. Even today. To that end, it's a funny, poignant, thought-provoking piece that celebrates these African American women, who were forced to live their lives in silent obedience to a system that had little use for them. Where they barely made ends meet and were traded or replaced without remorse or their permission. It's intense and heartbreaking but never pandering or overblown. For once, I wished the movie was longer, so they could have told more of the story. A film that will captivate both those familiar with the piece and newbies alike.

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