The Help (PG-13, 2011) was a film a lot of families I knew were talking about when it first came out but which I somehow missed. My wife and I had been wanting to see it for some time and finally got a chance to borrow it from a friend and watch it last night. Overall we were impressed by the film's rich depiction of southern life in the segregated city of Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960's.
The film centers on the character of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), an up-and-coming Mississippi journalist during the early days of the Civil Rights movement who wants to write a book telling the stories of the colored maids ubiquitous in the South of the early 1960's. The film has strong supporting roles by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play the maids Aibileen and Minnie, respectively. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hilly Holbrook, the films main antagonist who works stubbornly against Skeeter and the maids in order to maintain the Mississippi tradition of white supremacy. Given that this film is about maids and domestic work, the battle over civil rights focuses in on questions of shared living space between the colored maids and their white bosses, specifically the use of the bathroom.
In Skeeter's work recording the stories of the maids, several subplots emerge, all very skillfully woven together in my opinion. Both Emma Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard do a great job in their roles, particularly Howard as the cold, Pharisaical Hilly, who does everything in her power to keep her black maids in their place whilst simultaneously promoting charities to help starving children in Africa. It is great to see Howard in the role of a villain. Having been used to seeing her in innocent roles such as The Village and Lady in the Water, as well as Gwen Stacy in Spider Man 3, it was really refreshing to see her cast as an antagonist, and in my opinion she is much more convincing - the level of subtlety and malice that she is able to work into the malicious character of Hilly Holbrook is very impressive.
There was a surprising amount of potty humor in this film, which I suppose is to be expected given that the civil rights struggle is centered on colored people using white bathrooms. In fact, without spoiling anything, I would say that a particular potty joke is fairly central to the movie. Those of you who have seen the film will probably know what I'm referring to and won't soon forget it.
This film worked for me. There was no sexuality, though there were definitely some adult themes. Kids under 10 wouldn't understand it; kids between 10 and 14 might be scandalized by it. There were one or two cases of unfortunate casual blasphemy which really were unfortunate since they were totally unnecessary - as is all blasphemy.
But, if we were to omit these occasions, the movie came together great. The characters were cast well and all had considerable depth. Emma Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and all the supporting cast were enjoyable. Furthermore, the ambiance of the setting was just right. It's hard to explain, but the whole setting really created the right mood of pre-civil rights Mississippi, with a racial tension so thick you could cut it. There are a lot of great parallels here with the hot, stifling Mississippi weather during the summer of 1962 and the stifling, heated condition of race relations. There is a splendid contrast - the outward veneer of some of these white women is astoundingly shallow, almost like the neighborhood from Edward Scissorhands; but meanwhile the underlying racism nurtured by these women is venomous to the extreme.
The movie was good, dramatic and sad in some respects, notably comic in others, skillfully weaving together various characters of considerable depth in various subplots in a very convincing setting. It is unfortunate that they felt that blasphemy would add to the film.
Two and a half tiaras.