I love seeing great movies. I love seeing movies that really make you think. And I love seeing movies that push the artistry of the medium to places you wouldn’t have imagined it could go.
The Help does not fall into any of these categories, and yet I’m pretty sure I’m going to own it.
Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are. I was the other end of the conversation with Sarah in which we dreaded seeing this one, and that was before I found out I was in for a two-and-a-half-hour ride. I figured it would be overdramatic, simplistic, and far too self-congratulatory. And while I would say that I was correct to varying degrees on all three counts, every time there’s a cringeworthy line like Allison Janney’s character Charlotte intoning to her daughter Skeeter (Emma Stone) that “Courage sometimes skips a generation,” the film doesn’t even give you time to roll your eyes before, in this case, Charlotte’s simply telling Skeeter how proud she is of her and bringing a tear to your eye. Moreover, I had no idea it was going to be anywhere near this funny; lines like “Minny don’t burn chicken” are delivered with such zesty comic timing and accompanying hilarious faces that I paused the film in more than one spot to cackle like…well, Sissy Spacek in this film.
That’s not to say that the drama doesn’t work too — it just has some problems. The biggest one I have is the aforementioned Skeeter character, who’s essentially the reason we’re here; having been told by editor Elaine Stein of Harper and Row to come back when she has some experience (and speaking of Stein, I CAN’T TELL YOU how happy it makes me to see Mary Steenburgen again), and spurred by her childhood love of the maid that raised her, decides to write a tell-all book of stories told to her by local housekeepers (specifying that they’re all black is hardly necessary given the time period). Unfortunately, her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, is hardly an ideal place to scare up participants; racism is of course rampant, and the black people in service are deathly afraid of losing their jobs. Stone, with her deep voice and a way of carrying herself that’s not overly concerned with femininity, provides a nice natural contrast to her fluttery friends who were raised to be Southern belles; in that way it doesn’t strain credulity that she would be something of a free thinker. But her initial slowness to grasp how dangerous the project could be for all of them borders on ludicrous — it’s not like she hadn’t grown up in Jackson — and even when it’s explained to her in a powerful bit of acting by Viola Davis, it seems like she gets it, kind of, but not really – she’s sympathetic to the maids’ fear, but she doesn’t feel it herself. Speaking of whom, Skeeter’s first converts are Aibileen (Davis), the maid of her inconsequential, permanently postpartum (“She got the birthin’ blues,” we’re told) friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) and nanny to her daughter, and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who until recently worked for the most toxic member of the group, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Because of the circumstances of Minny’s departure from Hilly’s employ (you’ve heard about it; she cooked her a shit pie), Hilly fixes it so no one will hire Minny – save one person, Celia (Jessica Chastain), a lovable ditz who just so happens to be married to Hilly’s former beau and as such is beyond her influence, and wants Minny to work for her on the sly so her husband won’t find out what a slewfoot she is.
If it sounds complicated, it’s not, but it is, at least mostly, setup for some hilarious comedy. Spencer pretty much steals every moment she’s on screen; when Celia’s husband Johnny (Mike Vogel) discovers Milly, Spencer shows she can do prop comedy as well as sardonic delivery and sassy faces by brandishing a large stick at him; when he asks if she might want to put it down, she vigorously, and hilariously, refuses. The naïve Celia shows up at Hilly’s door during a bridge party, whereupon Hilly has the whole group hide behind tables like they’re in the pettiest of war zones rather than answer the door. And the shit pie gives and gives – other than the obvious moments like Hilly’s fabulous mother (Sissy Spacek) yelling “Run, Milly, run!” and the check made out to “Two Slice Hilly,” there’s a moment after Milly has told Celia what she did wherein Celia thanks her for it, and then gives her the most hilariously wary side-eye, like she was trying to recall if she tasted anything suspicious in the last chocolate pie Milly made for her.
Let me say, though, that I’m aware of the film’s failings. I haven’t read the book of the same name that’s the film’s source material, but Mark Blankenship wrote an excellent piece about it over on The Critical Condition you should check out. But I don’t have to have read the book to know that the film plays a lot of the racial material safe. Charlotte’s depiction as a victim and her transformation at the end ring particularly false, although Janney does her best to sell them, and I did enjoy her running around for almost the whole film in a Norma Desmond getup while cawing at Skeeter about boys. And while I found Celia showing off what she’d learned from Minny by cooking for her very touching, I wouldn’t have any problem admitting that when it comes to her sunny, equality-minded attitude toward black people, the character is too good to be true for the time. Essentially, she serves to allow Minny to tell us What Was Done and What Was Not Done at the time before reminding us that white people can be people too during the times when Emma Stone was in her trailer. (But again, she’s SO funny. The chicken-shaking! It merits its own award!)
So I don’t mean to trivialize what was going on in Jackson at the time by liking a movie that doesn’t tackle the issue head-on – I know the film doesn’t deserve a Medal of Honor here. Still, there are character moments that do justice to it; Aibileen unchaining herself from years of deference as she steps forward to confront Hilly is positively electrifying, and the scene where Skeeter discovers all the maids come to talk to her will necessitate a Kleenex or two. And I’ve mentioned some of the performances, but Davis really is great; the layered pain in her voice whenever she talks about raising children will stay with you like the lingering grief of loss, while Chastain makes Celia sympathetic and exceedingly fun where she could easily have been annoyingly flighty. (It’s nice to see her in an upbeat role, too, after her nobly suffering turns in Tree Of Life and Take Shelter.) And Bryce Dallas Howard takes a role that’s 98 percent loathsome and absolutely commands you to watch her – it’s like she knows she’s playing 2 Stars 1 Slot (RIP, Fametracker) with Evan Rachel Wood, saw how much she killed it in Mildred Pierce, and proceeded accordingly. Again, it’s not perfect – Skeeter’s underdeveloped romance with Stuart (although it was nice to see Chris Lowell for a bit) is an example of a plotline that felt tacked on, as if the producers were worried the film was too much of a hen party. And if you’re looking for a gritty depiction of the Jim Crow period, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But it’s funny, it’s well-acted, and the final sequence shows that the film knows which character it’s truly about. And as kids, wouldn’t we all have liked her to tell us how special we is?