Film Review – The Help
I have been reluctant to write this review. I’ve been avoiding it for days, despite knowing that I have a lot to say. Sometimes you enjoy a film immensely despite undeniable flaws, and often we term that a “guilty pleasure,” an “escape,” or something along those lines. But when one feels that way about a film that has the pedigree of something like The Help, a film that tries—and often succeeds—in being much more than escapism, the discussion feels a little more difficult. It feels more like launching a defense, and maybe a reluctant one. That’s where I stand now: knowing what my emotional feeling was during and immediately after the film, and trying to reconcile that with my analytical thoughts after some distance. It’s tougher than I anticipated going in to that screening.
The Help, directed and adapted by Tate Taylor from the novel by Kathryn Stockett, tells a story of several black women working as maids in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, and some of the town’s most “important” upper-class women whose homes they work in. We begin with Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark, narrating for the audience some of her life’s experiences cleaning the homes of wealthy white people and caring for their children, often for longer hours than the parents do themselves. Her current employer, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), has little business being a mother, according to Aibileen, who speaks of “babies” having babies, a trend that seems to have started with social powerhouse Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly’s current maid is Aibileen’s best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer). This is unfortunate for Minny, as Hilly is the most unabashed racist in the film, on a crusade to keep bathrooms segregated even within private homes, and seemingly incapable of showing a drop of compassion for anyone. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is Hilly’s friend, recently home from college and perhaps wondering if she’s moved past a friendship with such a petty person.
This is a slew of great actresses already, but there are more to come: Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother; Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s; Cicely Tyson in flashbacks as the Phelan family maid during Skeeter’s childhood; Jessica Chastain as a naïve new housewife on the fringes of Jackson society (as dictated by Hilly); Mary Steenburgen as an editor the wannabe-writer Skeeter desperately wants to impress; Aunjanue Ellis as friend of Aibileen’s who’ll see troubles of her own. We could use the term ’embarrassment of riches,’ but the only embarrassing thing is that we don’t get to see female ensembles like this with the same regularity we do the male equivalent.
As the story meanders across tumultuous professional and personal relationships during a summer that was pivotal in the civil rights movement (the film touches on the importance with the June 12, 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, though we don’t get too much more for regional/national context), the main thread tying things together is a book that Skeeter decides she wants to write, about the experiences of black maids in the South. Understandably, many of the women in that position do not want to put themselves in danger by participating in her interview process. But, if someone didn’t agree, we wouldn’t have a story, and eventually Aibileen decides to take the risk. Much as she did in her show-stopping few (Oscar-nominated) moments in Doubt (2008), Davis shows admirable skill at portraying the reluctant baring of fiercely guarded inner pain as she shares with Skeeter the indignities and injustices she’s faced in her working life. Her work is exquisite, and I will be very surprised if she is left off the Lead Actress list come Oscar time.
Spencer, in her depiction of Minny’s also-reluctant eventual participation, reaches heights that are equal to Davis’s, but that flow with comedy as well. She will be the most memorable thing about this film, perfectly playing a character whose big personality and abundance of truly hilarious dialogue could have put her over the top. Spencer is too good for that. Her Minny is the character you never want to turn away from, whose treatment feels the most harsh in an already cruel world, whose stiff upper lip and wit never seems forced, and whose moment of glorious, glorious triumph will enter the pantheon of Great Moments in Film Revenge.
This description so far only touches the surface of the amount of story told, as this is a film in which A Lot of Stuff Happens. Discussions of the novel (which I have not read, which was written by a white woman) and of the film (adapted by a white man) before its release have brought up very relevant points about problematic aspects of this approach to telling a story of the civil rights movement. In the film, there are moments when the complicated subject of white privilege in this era seems to boil down to the equivalent of Mean Girl syndrome, focusing on characters who totally would act better if, you know, it wasn’t social suicide, and who are depicted as less culpable for their behaviors and beliefs than the outwardly-nastier social queen bees they follow. I understand that this type of pressure does contribute mightily to stagnation in fights for equality, and that a two-hour dramedy can’t address all nuances of the civil rights movement, but it’s not a tone to ignore in discussing the film, either. Heaping so much of the drama onto the inarguably deplorable Hilly and being so careful to show the waves of guilt felt by nearly every other woman in her social circle skews and simplifies a truly fucked-up system of social beliefs that has not disappeared in our society and that bears strong similarities to other, still-okay-to-shout-from-the-rafters persecution of certain groups today.
Even if the film had managed to somehow avoid all of the pitfalls inherent in telling a story about the experiences and struggles of one group of people from the perspective of a more privileged one (both in terms of the filmmakers and the characters within the film), it would have other flaws. Flashbacks to Skeeter’s childhood and adolescence tumble from sentimental into cringe-worthy schmaltz; a detour into a potential love interest for her screams “this had to have been important in the book, or why bother?”; the third-act rhythm makes the final scene seem somehow like it shouldn’t quite be the final scene; an image of a desperate toddler banging on a window will lose its intended tragedy to giggles from those of us who have seen the end of The Graduate. These are nitpicks, but many times nitpicks contribute to what separates the films we consider great from the ones we consider only good. That’s where I’m left with The Help.
I do find it a joy, in profound, true use of that word, to watch those too-rare films like this one, that showcase a depth chart’s worth of impeccable female actors, focusing on their relationships with each other, their surroundings, and their places in society, and acting as if it is—gasp!—normal to do so, and—dare I say it?—entertaining as well. I did enjoy very much watching this film, which is extremely funny in moments it wants to be and effectively touching in others. It is that rare film with many glaring flaws that I still want to be a hit, that I still hope wins awards (for Davis and Spencer), that I know I will watch again. Its sheer momentum and dazzling display of acting skill made watching it a great experience, even if my brain wants to cower from unpacking all of the implications hiding within its approach to its themes. So, in the end, after all this talk, am I recommending you see it for yourself? Yes, I emphatically am.
Final Grade: B