The Good: Social message, The acting, Character development
The Bad: Slight pacing issues
The Basics: Emma Stone rocks out her final movie of the season, The Help, which tells the important story of exposing segregation in Mississippi.
Oscar Pandering Season is usually in December; it's the push when all the major studios and all the art studios release their contemplative pictures before the holidays and, coincidentally (?, no, it's by design!) the Oscar nominations process begins. They have, for the past several years, bet that the members of the Academy are too dim to recall any movies that came out a month before to nominate. Last year, with the Best Picture nominees being bumped up to ten, films like Inception (reviewed here!) had a chance at the big prize, though the first serious contender (for everyone but me, who was hoping Inception could pull it off) came out in October when The Social Network (reviewed here!) was released. This year, Oscar Pandering Season comes even earlier with it being hard to acknowledge that The Help has a serious chance at the Best Picture nomination and win.
What I found so interesting before going into see The Help tonight was the advertising. Unlike most movie previews of late, The Help did not try to cash in on the celebrity behind any of its stars. Instead, because it was based upon a wildly popular book (in the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the book, so this is a very pure review of the film), the advertising thrust for the movie was simply showing off who embodies which of the characters. Unfortunately, the advertising left me, a complete newbie to the phenomenon that is The Help with the idea that the film is populated by four character/archetypes: Skeeter the woman coming of age in the South who begins to challenge the mores and norms, Aibileen the long-suffering maid who is quiet and powerful, Minny the sassy black housekeeper and Hilly the stereotype of the Southern woman who embodies most of the problems with segregation.
Having now seen The Help it is easy to say that there is a serious contender for three of the big Oscars as well as a tough to whittle down Best Supporting Actress category (from just this one movie!). And the movie is near-perfect. My wife thought it was perfect, I think there were a few minor pacing issues that robbed it in the intangibles from reaching perfection (and, honestly, the more I think about Skeeter, the less I think there is actual character development going on there). I will say that I cannot recall the last time I watched a movie and found myself tearing up as much as tonight.
In the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, Skeeter is stepping out into the workforce. She has landed a job at the newspaper writing the household column, but she is noticing that the status quo is upsetting her more and more. So, she pitches a New York publisher an idea; to write a book about the black maids in Jackson and get the inside story on how their lives are lived. Her first subject is Aibileen Clark, a maid she has known for years and now works for Jolene, one of Skeeter's bridge club friends.
Just as Aibileen is reticent to risk her job by telling Skeeter what she truly wants to know, Minny is uneasy about her employer, Hilly's, push to get separate bathrooms for the help so whites and blacks will not share toilets. When a rain storm makes it difficult for Minny to get to the bathroom Hilly has provided, she attempts to use one of the indoor bathrooms and Hilly fires her. As Aibileen warms up to Skeeter's project, Minny takes work at the only house in town where Hilly has not badmouthed her; the estate of Celia Foote, a social outcast who is trying to get pregnant. As the Civil Rights Movement takes violent turns with the deaths of Medgar Evers and JFK, Aibileen and Minny get up the courage to help Skeeter write her book and encourage others to stand up, too.
Thrown in there is a very brief subplot in which Skeeter has a go with one of Hilly's friends and it is very much a subplot. It works for the social message of the film, but not so much for Skeeter's character. She seems smart enough from the beginning to not truly need a man in her life and the point of the boyfriend seems mostly to nail home the sense of conflict going on after The Help is published. Moreover, Skeeter is comparatively liberal from the outset, so she doesn't so much develop as she simply learns new information.
That said, The Help is a powerful character study for Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen's arc takes her on a journey of self-discovery whereby she gets the courage to stand up and tell the truth about some of the horrors of the segregated lifestyle. Unfortunately, the climax for the character is ruined in the previews, but the film is so engaging that I enjoyed the build-up to her confrontation with Hilly. Minny's character arc is one whereby her fronts are pulled away until she develops actual self-worth through her chaotic employment situations. Sure, she is the sassy black archetype that the previews made her seem, but she works because the movie has so much more of her in terms of developing her character after the fall from Hilly's graces.
But the real story for The Help is going to be the amazing acting. Allison Janey gives a wonderful supporting performance that proves what Mr. Sunshine's viewers quickly learned; Janey has a remarkable knack for performing crazy. As Skeeter's mother Charlotte, Janey bears the secret to one of the film's recurring mysteries - what happened to Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter? Janey plays the role as crazy enough to steal the attention in her scenes but not so overbearing as to distract from the main narrative flow. And she does it opposite her once-recurring-star from The West Wing Brian Kerwin!
Anna Camp, Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone all give wonderful supporting performances. And I lump Stone in on the supporting end because Skeeter is the facilitator, not so much the focus of the narrative. Besides, I'm pretty sick of writing how amazingly talented Stone is. She's wicked talented and while Janey slips out of her accent for a single line, Stone never does, giving a performance that continues her memorable ascent.
Bryce Dallas Howard is cold and vicious as Hilly. Hilly is the uber-bitch and Howard lands the role so effectively that there is truly nothing more that can be said. Her body language is wound so tight that it is amazing to think that she has ever played anyone more loose.
Octavia Spencer is more than just decent as Minny. Spencer is a tough one to write about; Minny is a pretty stereotypically sassy black woman and Spencer seems to dive right into that role. But when Minny has her epiphanies and is accepted by Celia's family in a loving way, Spencer lands the moment just right. She softens her eyes and there is a tenderness that she portrays that runs deep. She makes more out of the moment where her character does not speak than most of the moments when she is delivering the film's funniest lines.
But most of the film rests on the shoulders of Viola Davis. Davis is a master of the craft and at only 46, she has the task of convincing viewers she is quite a bit older. Her physical presence is impressive; she shakes slightly, she waddles a little bit, but mostly, she starts the film with a tired look in her eyes that embodies years of oppression. But when she interacts with her ward, she lights up and Aibileen comes alive as a truly viable and complicated character. And her journey works and captivates the audience for the full two hour seventeen minute runtime of the film.
The Help is emotionally complicated and it does not shy away from confronting the big horrors of segregation. It does, however, couch it to retain its loyal middle-aged female fanbase. So, for example, when a maid is arrested and becomes the subject of police brutality, we see the nightstick raised, but we are left to our imagination how terribly it falls. And complicated films tend to do well when the Oscars are considered. For a change, I feel like pushing for the obvious choice. So far, The Help is the best movie of 2011 and it deserves to be viewed, contemplated, and probably watched again.
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© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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