Sometimes a film needs to use broad brush strokes in order to reach wide audiences. There are movies that exist to appeal to a very narrow demographic, but there are those movies where appealing to the masses is key. The Help is the latter, a touching drama that also manages to operate as a safe crowd pleaser. Dealing with such a prickly subject as racism in 60s Jackson, Mississippi opens so many doors to uncomfortable events. Violence, murder, hatred, disgust, and general depravity could be used to describe this time in America, and could be sharp and aggressive points in a film taking place in this era. The Help tends to skirt the tougher issues, opting to show us primarily the social divide between Southern Belles and their maids. There is disgusting behavior in The Help, but it is wisely kept safe enough for fans of the book and general audiences to enjoy a wonderful story without the inconvenience of squirming in their seats.
The film focuses on an outsider coming to understand the plight of the ultimate outsiders in Jackson, Mississippi. Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a kinky-haired tomboy in a sea of Southern socialites. Skeeter wants to be a journalist and a writer, and takes a job with a local newspaper writing about housekeeping tricks and tips. She lives among a world of stuffy women, led by the wicked and manipulative Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a devious racist and an Ice Queen who goes out of her way to insult, humiliate, and control the black housekeepers who raise white children and take care of white households while their own lives go unnoticed. Hilly’s friend, Elizabeth, walks in Hilly’s shadow and has no time for her own child either. These bored housewives spend their time looking proper and playing bridge while the housekeepers take care of the ugly things in their lives.
Skeeter yearns to write something important, and as she completely disagrees with her peers, as well as her mom (Allison Janney) who is more concerned with her getting a date than anything else in the world, she decides to write a book about Jackson from the perspective of "The Help." She approaches Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who is apprehensive at first but is soon compelled to tell her story. Along with Aibileen, there is Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a housekeeper as outspoken and abrasive as Aibileen is calm and reserved. The Help then becomes a story about these two women, and they steal the show from the other actresses.
Enter Celia Foote, the wild card played by Jessica Chastain. Celia is a social outcast, a bit of a white trash ditz who isn’t “clever” enough to hate these black women. When she hires Minny to help her figure out how to be a proper housewife, Celia is too naïve to realize it is uncouth to sit with Minny and share lunch. Celia is a special enemy to Hilly, and once the pieces are set into place the film becomes a waiting game, where we wait in great anticipation to see these awful white women get their comeuppance. All the while, Skeeter is learning from these housekeepers and building up her own resentment towards her mother, towards Hilly, and towards the attitude of Jackson altogether.
The Help is a touching and emotionally engaging film loaded from top to bottom with magnificent performances. In an age where female performances are marginalized, here is a film where I could see three or four Oscar nominations. Davis and Spencer dominate the film as the two most prominent housekeepers, and Bryce Dallas Howard is quite good in what must have been a difficult role to play. Hilly is a monster, and Howard’s cold gaze is appropriately heartless.
The look of the film is pristine, and the camera unclouded. The Help is not without some flaws, including needing a little more time in the editing room here and there to tighten the focus, but overall I grew quite fond of the picture as the story unfolded. It may also play it a little safe, keeping the violence and the hate crimes off camera. Some fils would opt for sharper angles to the story, but in retracting its claws it allows the picture to appeal to a broader audience. Sometimes, this is not a bad thing.