The Help, but I never actively sought it out either. A success at the box office and during awards season, I just wasn't dying to see it regardless of all the positive reviews. I'm stubborn that way apparently. So here we sit, a year later, and I caught up with it. Definitely worth the wait, and another lesson I shouldn't be so stubborn when it comes to movies.
Having just gotten her college degree, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) heads home to Jackson, Mississippi hoping to get a job writing for a local newspaper. She gets that job, ghostwriting a column about cleaning advice. Skeeter seeks the help of Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid who works for one of the richer, well-to-do families in town. Having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter has seen the inner workings of the town; white families served hand and foot by their African-American servants with no regard for feelings. Talking to Aibileen, Skeeter thinks it would be a great idea to write a book written from the perspective of "the help." Aibileen and her friend and fellow maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer), agree, but they're scared to death of the possible consequences.
From director Tate Taylor, this is an interesting movie to watch, digest and review. While it is a highly enjoyable film to watch, it is also intensely uncomfortable to watch because of.....well, it's honesty. Set in early 1960s Mississippi, the focus is clearly on the racism and segregation that ran rampant in the South and around much of the U.S. for years (and still does in different ways). It is a difficult movie to watch, difficult to comprehend people treat others like this. The help are treated like dirt with some believing they carry "different diseases" to the point their own bathrooms are built in garages.
Credit to Taylor and his crew though for making the movie. Set just 50 years ago from the present, it feels like we're traveling as viewers in a time machine. You watch this movie and feel like you've been transported to 1960s Jackson. Everything from the wardrobe to the sets to the big boats of cars gives 'Help' an air of authenticity. We see people smoking anywhere and everywhere, we see the violence that erupts from the developing Civil Rights movement, and the way the maids and help are treated like second-class citizens. I especially liked Thomas Newman's score as well, an underplayed score that moves the story along nicely.
By far though, the best thing going for Taylor's film is the cast. It's a deep cast. Very deep. Up until this point in her career, Emma Stone had done mostly comedic work, even some light drama. In a major starring role, Stone doesn't disappoint. It isn't a performance that requires her to carry the movie, but that's the beauty of such a strong ensemble. She develops quite the interesting character, and one that ends up being a means to an end to introduce the deeper, more dramatic parts. Also look for Allison Janney as Skeeter's mother, Charlotte, Ahna O'Reilly as Elizabeth, a young married woman who has Aibileen as a maid, Sissy Spacek as an aging Southern belle and the mother of another character (more on Hilly later), and Cicely Tyson as Constantine, the Phelan's maid who was a key figure in Skeeter's childhood.
All those performances are solid, but four other performances end up being what many viewers took away from the film. Octavia Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part as Minny, the fiery, opinionated maid who ends up butting heads with Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly, the -- pardon my language -- Queen Bitch in Jackson. Spencer is the showier part while Viola Davis gets the more understated and underplayed part that provides the perfect counter to Spencer's Minny. It is an epically appropriate duo, two genuine friends who have also bonded through their similar trials. Davis was also nominated for an Oscar but lost to Meryl Streep from The Iron Lady. Her motherly relationship with Elizabeth's daughter is the crux of the movie. Howard is a despicably unlikable villain in a great performance. The third nominated part goes to Jessica Chastain as Celia, an outsider in Jackson because Hilly hates her. Her relationship with Spencer's Minny ends up being a key part of the movie, a highly effective emotional relationship. Four great performances though.
If there is a complaint I had, it's that at 146 minutes, 'Help' is a tad on the long side. It's never boring and always interesting to watch, but in certain parts of the second half it felt like I had been watching the movie for quite a long time. The ending makes up for any draggy portions with a kick right in the crotch in the emotion department. It's a heartbreakingly real ending, one that while appropriate is depressing nonetheless. A very good movie overall that deserves all the kudos and accolades it's earned. Glad I caught up with it.
The Help (2011): ***/****