Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Help

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O' Reilly, Allison Janey, Emma Henry, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek
Running Time: 146 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ¼ (out of ★★★★) 

From a critical standpoint, The Help is underrated. It may seem like a strange comment to make about a decently reviewed awards contender beloved by many and that's grossed over $200 million, but it seems whenever the film's discussed there's always some qualifier belittling or explaining away its success. The most pointed accusation slung its way is that it's a "whitewashing" of racism, taking what's obviously extremely sensitive and important issue and sanitizing it for mainstream entertainment, even going so far as to filter it all through the eyes of a white protagonist. Accused of engaging in revisionist history, many have claimed it presents a Hollywood version of the Jim Crow South that fails to make everyone understand the true pain and suffering blacks experienced during that time. But could any film do that? Should it? Going into Tate Taylor's The Help (based on Kathryn Sockett's 2009 bestselling novel) I expected mainstream fluff, kind of a Hallmark greeting card or Lifetime movie of the week transported to the big screen. Something like The Blind Side meets Driving Miss Daisy. But it's instead a well acted, well directed drama that works as a snapshot of a time and a depiction of attitudes. This isn't pretending to be something it's not, and overlooking that is the biggest mistake that can be made critiquing it. And if it is fluff someone forgot to tell the talented array of actresses who carry it. If anything, it should be praised, not derided, for deftly handling a difficult topic with an intelligence uncommon among most mainstream movies.

It's the early 60's in Jackson, Mississippi and 23 year-old Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) is fresh out of college with a new job writing for the local newspaper, an opportunity frowned upon by her cancer-striken mother Charlotte (Alison Janey) who feels she should just find a man and settle down. Upon discovering their longtime maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) had mysteriously quit then disappeared while she was away, Skeeter's eyes are opened to the racist attitudes her friends and neighbors have toward "the help." The worst of them is stuck-up socialite and Junior League president Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who actually proposes a "Home Help Sanitation Initiative" that would provide separate bathrooms for their black housekeepers. Having not been brought up racist, Skeeter starts questioning these injustices and comes up with the idea to write a book from their perspective, detailing the feelings of maids who've sacrificed own lives to raise white children who will more than likely grow up to become racists themselves. Two maids, the quiet, somber Abileen Clark (Viola Davis) and tough talking Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) agree to participate. The former quietly soldiers forward while mourning the death of her son while the latter isn't afraid of telling it like it is, a trait that gets her fired by Hilly and eventually taken under the employ of social outcast Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). With the deadline from her editor fast approaching, Skeeter must get as many stories from the help as she can, which proves difficult considering the potential consequences of the book's publication.

What really jumps out about the story are the hypocritical attitudes of these well-to-do white women who trust the help enough to let them essentially raise their children, but refuse to share a bathroom with them because of the color of their skin.  While Skeeter is the first to notice this inane reasoning and sets in motion a plan to rectify it, the story really isn't about her. Those complaining the maids' histories are being dictated to a white person should consider the likelihood of any editor publishing a book by a black housekeeper during that era, not mention the chances they'd risk their lives trying to write one. The character of Skeeter actually makes the events seem more plausible, not less. So by even employing this narrative device (taken straight from the novel) the film's already operating at a higher level of realism than it's being given credit for. But the movie is all about the performances, which are just about as good as any from an ensemble cast this year.

As the narrator and centerpiece of the story, Viola Davis has surprisingly limited screen time and dialogue as Aibileen, but the the film never needs to go to the ugly places everyone's complaining it doesn't because all the pain, suffering and indignity these maids begrudgingly endure is visible on Davis' face. Given the opportunity to finally speak out against injustice she's justifiably filled with mixed feelings since it's the only life she knows, as awful as it is. Octavia Spencer steals the spotlight as the feisty Minny, role that was specifically written with the longtime character actress in mind. The special surprise she delivers to her former employer Hilly is easily the funniest moment in the picture, as an ignorant racist finally gets her comeuppance courtesy of an unusual dessert. That a movie covering this topic can even have funny moments and we don't feel guilty laughing should be proof enough something was done right.

Bryce Howard is brilliantly detestable as Hilly, and while she's the kind of villain you just want to reach through the screen and strangle, Howard's portrayal impressively avoids turning her into a one-dimensional caricature. As in her supporting turn in this year's cancer dramedy 50/50, she makes her character's deplorable actions seem real and sad, not manufactured for the sake of cheap drama. Sissy Spacek provides scene-stealing comic relief as Hilly's mother, who's losing her marbles but can still see what an annoying brat her daughter's turned into. Emma Stone is charmingly goofy and endearing as Skeeter, in a difficult role that most other actresses in her age range likely would have struggled with. She pulls off a surprisingly convincing southern accent, handles the more dramatic scenes well, and effectively conveys Skeeter's insecurity and outspoken bravery. Making her sixth or seventh screen appearance this year, 2011's biggest acting discovery Jessica Chastain disappears into Marilyn Monroe lookalike Celia, a social outcast who ends up having a lot more substance to her than it seems at first. On the outskirts and sheltered from the racist views of her peers, the emotional bond she forms with new employee Minny is one of the film's many surprising pleasures.

The big mystery and what her mother's been keeping from Skeeter is what exactly happened with their longtime help Constantine while she was away at school. It's a secret that's kept throughout the entire film, until being revealed in a flashback in the third act and without spoiling anything, I'll just say it's one hell of a scene. I can't understand how anyone can watch this powerful sequence and the heartbreaking performances of Allison Janey and Cicely Tyson in it and still claim this is just fluff.  There's an indelible image that concludes this expertly directed and acted scene that's difficult to shake after it's passed, regardless of anyone's feelings on the film's treatment of history as a whole.

Is the movie meant to be a mainstream audience pleaser? Absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with that. While there are inherent limitations when you take this approach and the length of ten football fields separates the quality of something like this and the year's higher quality films like The Tree of Life or Drive, I still wouldn't begrudge the casual moviegoer--who maybe sees only a handful of features each year--for naming it one their favorites. To say it's "dumbed down" for mainstream audiences or they want to be spoon-fed a revisionist history isn't exactly fair since the presentation of the material never really backs that argument up. It's presented in a manner that definitely aims to make it feel more accessible, but it isn't dumb. If anything, it would hopefully get viewers unaware of the exact history to learn more about the actual events that inspired it or seek the kind of documentary some critics are complaining this isn't. And it shouldn't be punished for tackling a sensitive topic in more lightweight manner, especially if its intentions are clearly laid out from the onset and it doesn't waver in that approach all the way through. It was obvious from the first frame what the goal of the film was and it almost flawlessly delivers on that promise with just a few missteps, such as a poorly developed sub-plot involving Skeeter and her boyfriend (Chris Lowell), that's left dangling without any clear resolution.  

Negotiating his way some tough tonal territory, relatively unknown director Tate Taylor keeps the pace moving breezily along for almost two and a half hours, while the production, costume design and cinematography succeed in creating a feel for the setting and period. Given all the complaints I heard before seeing it, you'd figure the film toppled Gone With The Wind in its stereotypical depiction of black maids in the south, but these two characters are way too well written and performed to even jokingly warrant such a comparison. They're strong, brave women trying to improve their situation, not helpless caricatures.

I know it's generally frowned upon for a critic to even react to the reaction of others to a film, but getting to it so late and hearing so many accusations beforehand, there really wasn't much choice. I'll admit it probably doesn't bode well for its shelf life that I had to work this hard defending it. Great movies should be enthusiastically praised without reservation rather than defended with a laundry list of excuses of why it isn't as bad as everyone says it is, followed by an apology. And because the filmmakers took this lighter approach it just simply won't stay in the mind as long as something with more substance to it. That's no one's fault, just an inevitability when the decision was made in the pre-production stage to remain faithful to the source material. I understand and even appreciate many of the criticisms leveled against it, but at the same time there's no denying the on screen results are above average in every possible category. The unusual rating above comes from sensing this is exactly the kind of movie I'll forget about it in less than a month, if I haven't already. Or maybe I'm just kind of disturbed only half a star would separate this from the very best, putting it on par with films that actually do dig deeper. Either way, it seems those most offended by The Help are more against the idea of it being made in the first place, which becomes another issue altogether. In this case, approaching a movie for what it is rather than what it isn't, is a tip some critics could have taken from audiences. 

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