You Can’t Help But Like The Help
You could be forgiven for rolling your eyes over another Hollywood-ized story of Caucasian do-gooderism towards the downtrodden black race and certainly “The Help” (based on the popular book by Kathryn Stockett) had the potential for guilt baiting sentimentality. But its heartfelt tone and the predictability of its racially edgy civil rights era environs are aided tremendously by some terrific performances making it both dramatically compelling and authentically moving.
Despite a few overcooked moments where “the Help” seems to be desperately aching for broad comedy (one great revenge gag involving a pie is referenced too often), this story written from the perspective of Skeeter (Emma Stone) an aspiring writer who collects the stories of black housekeepers in Jackson, Mississippi, avoids getting too preachy.
Understandably fearful of being fired or worse, the maids – who are so much more—are buoyed by Skeeter’s determination and empathy– eventually providing her with a publishable tome of heart-wrenching stories.
Stone grounds the narrative and offers a fine turn but the film leans heavily on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, two friends who spend their lives taking care of rich white families while being prohibited from using the same bathroom in which they toilet train their employer’s children. Davis who plays her Aibileen with stern, palpable conviction is as convincing in every word she utters as Spencer as Minny is rich in her defiant scorn and comic riffing. Both parts could easily slip into caricature; it’s a tribute to both actresses that there isn’t one false moment between them.
Other surprises abound. Who knew Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Village”) could so convincingly play Hilly the uppity socialite who gets her come-uppance or Jessica Chastain (Looking so differently than her role in “Tree of Life”) who nails the fragile, dim witted vulnerability of her blond bombshell Celia?
Some will scoff that “The Help” covers familiar territory or that the message should have been angrier and louder. But there is a certain beauty to the way “The Help” allows its gifted cast to bring out its themes of injustice, friendship, empowerment and harmony without heavy handed sermonizing. That kind of subtlety often is more effective – and it certainly can sell more tickets. And in this case, a bit of commercialism is a good thing.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material.