Wednesday, September 7, 2011


At first I did not care to see "The Help."  It was, I assumed, a "relationship movie," being a movie that doesn't have much comedy or killing or special effects or monsters or Western gunfighters. But my impression was that this one was all relationships, and all-female ones at that, with not much good to say about men.

In fact, I liked the movie. I can recommend it with almost no reservations. Relationships, after all, are important.

The movie is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-63. It explores the relationship between white Junior Leaguers and the black maids who raised them, and who now work for them -- a pattern that had held for generations but upon which the civil rights struggles of the Sixties were placing new and unaccustomed strains.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a young woman who aspires to a journalism career, and who was largely raised by a black maid (Constantine, played by Cicely Tyson in a small but memorable turn). She has the idea of writing a book (which becomes "The Help") about these relationships from the standpoint of the maids. She enlists her fellow Junior Leaguers' maids, the submissive but perceptive Aibileen (Viola Daivs) and, eventually, the much less pliable Minny (Octavia Spencer) to tell her their stories.  Skeeter's growing interest in the maids' stories places her in conflict with Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard's daughter), the head of the Junior League, a woman dedicated to The Way Things Have Always Been between Southern whites and their servants.   Hilly fires Minny and blackballs her from getting any other maid positions among the society whites, but Minny eventually catches on with a cheerful wealthy outcast (Celia, played by Jessica Chastain) who does not have the proper Jackson pedigree, but who has had the good fortune to have married well and who seems to have very little racial consciousness in enlisting Minny to assist her (without her husband's knowledge) in managing the large estate that (until the end, unseen) husband has entrusted to her care.

Viola Davis
Skeeter's interest in the maids' histories is not entirely altruistic.  I mentioned her ambitions -- she wants to be published, and this motive is not glossed over in the movie.  Skeeter is in constant touch with a New York publisher (Jane Alexander).   As the film progresses, however, she identifies more closely with these tough, gifted women.  It is to the movie's credit that it does not focus overmuch on this transformation; yet we feel it through Ms. Stone's fine performance. 

Octavia Spencer
The movie is ultimately satisfying for reasons I cannot relate without spoiling it for you.  Suffice it to say that the ending, while not entirely satisfying, is far from tragic.  Hey, I cry for the neglected old toys in "Toy Story" -- I wasn't similarly moved at the conclusion of "The Help," and I got the same feeling from the attendees at the show I saw, but I count that as a good thing.  The movie doesn't overtly manipulate; it tells a story that makes sense on its own terms, with goodness being only ambiguously rewarded. 
The strength of this show is its performances.  Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are extraordinary, and Emma Stone holds her own with these two powerful black actresses.  Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly is a formidable foil, alternately hateful and comic; her black, close-set eyes blaze with racial righteousness.  Sissy Spacek, as her mother, has too few moments onscreen, but enough to remind us that we don't see enough of this wonderful actress.  Allison Janney is also marvelous as Skeeter's mother, caught between her own social ambitions and the welfare of the woman who had served her household for decades.

Emma Stone

Bryce Dallas Howard
Go see it, especially if you lived through those times, and especially if you didn't.

I mentioned some reservations.

I agree with David Denby in his favorable review in The New Yorker that the flaws in the movie really don't seem to matter much, fading as the movie progresses.  I think this is because of the intrinsic drama of the material.  I also think the viewer may also be distracted by the thought that to some degree, the frictions that were life-and-death in the Sixties continue to linger, in a far less poisonous but uneasy social dialogue between monied people and those who mow their lawns, fix their media centers, and, yes, assist them with raising their children and maintaining their households.

So my reservations are mainly quibbles.  I did not entirely buy in to the shallowness of the Junior Leaguers or the sometimes unvarnished villainy of Hilly, although goodness knows there are villains abroad when a change that needs to happen is resisted by those whom the status quo favors.  And I thought that the maids' reactions when faced with the ladies' slights were more revealing than your average Southern maid would have exhibited.

Given the dramatic subject matter and the historical fulcrum upon which both the book and the movie balance, it is somewhat surprising that both are regarded as of interest primarily to women.  It must be because the men in the movie are almost invisible, mostly afterthoughts.  The show tries to gin up a romantic story for Skeeter, but it's slight and unconvincing.  Hilly's husband is like Hilly, bad.  Celia's husband, turns out, is good.  While the period clothing and hairstyles (worth the price of admission for those of us who lived through them) serve to highlight the individuality of the women, they tend to make the men unmemorable. 

Hey, I'm glad it wasn't a movie about the way men treated The Help.

Check it out, guys.

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