I know I'm coming to this film fairly late in the game, but it was one of the ones that got lost in the shuffle between the States and home. I was able to catch up with it thanks to the Penthouse Cinema's $8 "Oscar buzz" deal - films that are beginning to get some Oscar talk, playing twice a week for $8 a pop, a different film each week. I'm interested to see what else is coming up.
It's fairly obvious, but I'm just going to go ahead and state it upfront anyway: I am a white, middle-class male who grew up in New Zealand suburbia. I have never experienced racism first hand and my knowledge of 1960's America is limited to what I have learned from pop culture (my own historical proclivities tend towards the ancient). And through that (largely white male dominated) pop culture I have learned that minorities always need the help of a kindly white person to rise up and overthrow/stand up to the prevailing social hierarchy. Just look at the cinema of Ed Zwick who is the most recent purveyor of this kind of condescending film-making. Hollywood doesn't seem comfortable, or at least thinks audiences wouldn't be comfortable, with heroic minority lead characters. There's far more to be written (and has been) on the representation of African-Americans and Hispanics in American media and pop culture; far more than can be encapsulated within a movie review.
The Help is one of the least egregiousness examples of this type of filmmaking; the maid characters of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) wrestle as much of the film away from the limp protagonist of Skeeter (Emma Stone) as they can, forcing the focus onto them by dint of their performances and stories.
Skeeter is a newly graduated journalism student, newly returned to Jackson, Mississippi and all hot and bothered to start writing something life changing and full of meaning. Instead, due to prevailing social attitudes of the time (and the fact that she is newly graduated with zero professional experience behind her) she is assigned the cleaning advice column of her hometown rag. Through needing cleaning advice of her own, Skeeter begins interviewing her friend's maid Aibileen. But she very quickly (immediately, essentially) uses the cleaning questions as a cover for interviewing Aibileen on what its really like to be a maid and raise white children, even at the cost of raising her own. These are the days of Jim Crow segregation and on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement; their interviews have to be in secret and, at first, Aibileen is the only woman willing to talk. There is the possibility of very real danger that is never fully exploited.
The only real danger and villain of the piece is the racist and bitchy Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of Skeeter's society circle. She is a deeply racist character, convinced of the lower nature of African-Americans and works to have separate outhouses for the maids installed in each house, to halt "their" diseases from spreading to whites. Hilly fires her longtime maid Minny when the woman dares to use the inside bathroom during a storm. Minny, all sass and with a large brood of children, ends up working for the socially shunned Celia (Jessica Chastain) and their times together actually provide some of the strongest moments in the film. Celia is a bundle of joyous nerves, with no idea of how to cook or maintain a household and with something of a white trash vibe about her. Despite, or perhaps because of this, she is more grateful than superior to Minny. It becomes a case of the maid trying to tell her mistress how things are supposed to run and, essentially, taking the woman under her wing. These two have a couple of powerful scenes between them and are more engaging than most.
It's a shame about the supposed lead character, Skeeter, then. Stone does her charismatic best to bring life to her, but crusading writer is barely more than a thinly sketched author surrogate. There's a mildly intriguing subplot with the mysterious firing of her family's much loved maid but a subplot with a boyfriend (all three scenes of it) are fairly forgettable and add nothing to the film but running time. This leaves the majority of the last half to stand with Aibileen and Minny; which is all for the better even if it initially feels uneven. Davis is powerful as the maid who gives all her love to the white children she raises and Spencer has deft comic timing in her role of the "sassy best friend" (and pie comeuppance giving) Minny. Howard and Chastain dive into their roles of villain and ditz with vigour. Howard seems to be enjoying the challenge of playing unsympathetic characters at the moment and it was a joy to see Chastain with more to do than appear ethereal and angelic (Tree of Life).
But all this great character work by an ensemble of strong female actors is in service to a film that feels over-egged and dramatically limp. The entirety of this well-meaning drama made little emotional connection to me. It aimed for too much, perhaps, and felt a little forced at times. It is a decent enough film, I just felt that there was more to be discovered; harsher truths to be felt and a wider world to be seen. But then I am likely looking at the film through a different lens - this is no Malcolm X but a light, almost feel-good drama.
Fairly smart, if middlebrow and nonthreatening, expect to hear more from The Help around Oscar time. Especially when it comes to the acting nominations.