The Help (2011)
by Steve Habrat
For all the films that have acted like rollercoaster rides this summer, none have been more of an emotional ride than The Help. Do I dare say, this early on in the year, that Tate Taylor’s sassy comedy/drama set at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is one of the best films of the year? I think I can. But while some films find their way to the top of that list by how pertinent they are to the current epoch (see The Hurt Locker, The Social Network, The King’s Speech, etc.), The Help doesn’t send a particularly current message. Sure, it’s can’t-we-all-just-look-past-our-differences-and-just-get-along can work in every climate and it is basically a rallying cry for outsiders (of any color, might I add) to find their voice and stick up for themselves. No, a film can find it’s way to the top of that list on the performances that make up the said film. The Help thrives on this idea. Yet the film strings along scene after scene that in one second will have you chuckling (“I NEVER burn chicken!”) and the next will have you scrambling to pick up the pieces of your shattered heart. It’s quite the bipolar film.
When I say this is a film for outsiders, we must take into consideration the era that this film takes place in. Set in the 1960’s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Played by the inescapable starlet Emma Stone) is a recent college grad that is also an aspiring writer. She is a confident, self-assured, and snappy woman who is determined to make a career for herself and avoid becoming a phony trophy/stay-at-home wife like the ones she mingles with on a daily basis. Upon returning, she ignites an old friendship with Hilly Holbrook (Played by the jaw-dropping beaut Bryce Dallas Howard), a stay-at-home wife with a racist streak and a political agenda of her own. She is making a push to segregate bathrooms in the household between colored help and the white inhabitants. One day during a violent storm, Minny Jackson (Played by Octavia Spencer), the colored housekeeper of Hilly, has to use the restroom and she doesn’t want to brave the vicious storm to do it. Defying the frigid Hilly, she uses the white facilities and gets herself fired. Simultaneously, Skeeter has started working on a book with the reluctant and reserved Aibileen Clark (Played by the Oscar-worthy Viola Davis) on what it’s like to be colored help in the south. Aibileen convinces Minny to contribute to the book, sharing a story of revenge that threatens to tear apart Skeeter’s friendships with old friends and family.
The Help narrowly avoids being the mandatory mother/daughter bonding film of the summer. Upon an initial first glance, it appears to be the option for the ladies who don’t want to accompany their chest-thumping husbands and boyfriends to the latest Fast and Furious movie. The film does act as a celebration for the liberated, empowered female, but also a film that gives an individual who sees themselves as looked over and brushed to the side courage to find their voice. It’s universal, yes, but outrageously accessible. This is what troubles The Help. It’s so concerned about being unanimous and trying to appeal to everyone. That’s why the ending of the film is such a wallop. It seems like this sequence should serve as a bridge from one conflict to another in a film like this, but it leaves the audience filling in what happens next. I applaud the film for taking this route. It lacks the Hallmark ending that would usually make a sappy film like this diabetically sweet.
Despite its blatant comradery, the film is carried on the backs op Davis, Spencer, Howard, and Stone, who act as the heavy lifters in this picture. Davis plays Aibileen with haunted eyes and a cracked soul. She pulls genuine condolences for her character when we learn about her distraught back-story. Spencer is feisty and adds the spunk a film like this needs. She delivers the best lines of the film and she sometimes seems relegated to jester to the seriousness at hand. Near the end, get ready for a serious shocker from her character that will leave you clutching your gut in laughter. Stone is her usually sweet self as the ambitious Skeeter. She represents what was ultimately rejected during this era—the career driven woman. Her cancer stricken mother who pleads with her to find a man and get married hounds her every step of the way and this further solidifies her outsider persona. She absolutely refuses to give a man an inch. In one flashback sequence, she sulks to her sweet and elderly housekeeper Constantie (I could have watched a whole film about Skeeter’s relationship with Constantine!) about not getting asked to the school dance by a boy. It’s a minor sequence that hints at the confidence seeds planted within her. And we can’t forget Howard, who clocks in a vile performance as Hilly, a despicable human being with no compassion. She gets what’s coming to her and I won’t reveal what that is, but I will say that the revenge here is certainly sweet.
Despite it’s clichés, The Help is a remarkably enjoyable and ultimately a feel good film. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else but what it is. It acts as a voyeuristic look back in time as well as encouraging empowerment and liberation for present times. These messages are elementary at best here, but I had such a great time watching these women that I am willing to forgive this one flaw. There were scenes that ate at me and there are some tearful moments. It’s a performance film that tells a stimulating story with impeccable ease. Since seeing it and thinking about it, the film has a strange pull on the viewer. It’s delectably entertaining. You want to go back and listen to these characters again. The film ends with a monologue from Aibileen saying that no one has ever asked her how she is doing. Well Aibileen, you certainly have my undivided attention. Grade: A