Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Help: Movie Review


Comedy, drama and characters who walk Hollywood's high rope.

It's the 1960s in Mississippi, and the uppity, high-class, rich white girls have returned from university with husbands in tow and babies in their bellies, and now they get to hire maids of their own. The maids of course are poor black women from the other side of the tracks (literally). Skeeter (Emma Stone), on the other hand, has returned home from university with a degree in hand, rather than a husband, and after a stop-off in New York City in a failed attempt to get a job as a writer. 2011

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Screenplay by: Tate Taylor
Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer

The other girls are 1960s Barbie dolls in their party dresses and perfectly coiffed hair. While Skeeter misses the maid who raised her and finds herself drawn to the world of the help as she struggles with her first job. She first gets the advice of two experienced maids working for her Barbie doll friends — Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) — for a cleaning column, but she wants to start pushing the boundaries of the law and tell a story from their point of view.

At its worst, "The Help" is a melodramatic but poignant, long drawn-out affair where a white woman happily solves racism in America and the whole world can hold hands and skip in perfect harmony. However, at its best, it's a well-crafted film that subtly holds together multiple genres as it balances that tight rope between drama and comedy. Lean too far in either direction, and you fall (which it comes close to multiple times but never actually crashes).

A hidden story in this movie, is one of a girl, Skeeter, who has triumphantly navigated university, but is at a stand-still in trying to get a job and live independently, so for now, she's at home and working for the local newspaper as she forges her way in the real world. Sounds typical, doesn't it? Except there's a good chance you won't even notice this story because it is hidden beneath all the class-divides, racial-divides and friendship-divides.

There's even a character in here who will surprise you: Celia Foote played by Jessica Chastain. Although I generally know better than to listen to plastic, talking Barbies who described Celia as white trash, I still believed them. The layers of her cluelessness and my surprise were delightful and entertaining to unravel.

It's dramatic because this is a story of inequality. The help get treated is if they are "less than" while the southern belles act as if they are "more than." As said before Skeeter wants this to be about the maids' point of view, and as you can guess, they are mostly sad stories. Except for Minny's because she likes being bold. Octavia Spencer and Sissy Spacek as the mother of a mean-spirited Barbie doll are responsible for most of the comedic relief. And relief it is because they are funny.

There were references to Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, "Gone with the Wind" and Margaret Mitchell. Because this is Hollywood and the excessive run time, I'm afraid they have already placed this movie in that esteemed group. It's good, it's fun and meaningful, but let's not get too carried away.