Movies that are based on historically/culturally significant issues always need to walk a tightrope. If they end up being too melodramatic and manipulative, the significance of what they’re conveying will be lost because viewers will feel cheated. If they end up being too subtle and low-key, the message might never have the impact it was supposed to. But when they get the balance just right – like Schindler’s List – then they can offer a catharsis that few films can match. The Help belongs to neither category. While it doesn’t get everything right, it is mostly on the right side of the line and doesn’t stray too far into melodrama territory.
The Help primarily focuses on the lives of three different women. The first of these is Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) who has just returned to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi after completing her graduation. She aspires to become a journalist in a major city and, to gain some experience, accepts a job at the local daily. Upon her arrival, she is also disappointed to learn that her childhood maid Constantine (Cicley Tyson) has quit while she was away. Skeeter remains skeptical about the circumstances that led to Constantine’s departure and also witnesses the treatment other black maids are subject to from the families they work for. Aiming to write something big and path-breaking, she decides to interview a majority of the black maids in her town and write their experiences as a book.
As the first subject of her book, Skeeter speaks to Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) who works for her friend Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). Aibileen isn’t forthcoming in the beginning, but, after a particularly inspirational day at church, decides to pen down her thoughts herself. Offering her side of the story is also outspoken maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) whose fiery attitude, which sees her becoming unemployed frequently, is only matched by her cooking skills. The latest person to terminate her services is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who happens to be the ‘white bully’ of Jackson. However, Minny is able to find herself work with Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) who isn’t on Hilly’s Christmas list. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny set about to completing their work even as they face pressure from all sides, while other maids soon come forward as the treatments start worsening.
The film’s greatest strength, and the pillar upon which its success is built, is the acting from every member of the cast. Since the character of Skeeter demands it, a lot of effort has gone into trying to make Emma Stone not look pretty. And, surprisingly, it works. With bushy, crooked eyebrows and a weird hairstyle, she looks nothing like what we’ve seen before. She has always been a terrific actress with a great screen presence, and both of those work to her advantage. She isn’t the focal point of this film, but her performance is still accomplished and noteworthy for depicting Skeeter’s sincerity. Viola Davis’ Aibileen is the film’s narrator and the pivot around which it revolves. Davis demonstrates incredible dramatic range as an actress in gaining sympathy for Aibileen. Her personal moments with the children she takes care of are genuinely heartfelt and her final tirade against the character of Hilly is perfectly delivered.
Effortlessly stealing almost every frame she appears in is Octavia Spencer. She is responsible for the film’s comic relief and her perfect timing works well with her big eyes to leave us laughing in each of her scenes. Additionally, Minny comes across as a character of genuine depth instead of someone who is just present for the moments of levity; thanks in large part to Spencer’s capability as a dramatic actress. Bryce Dallas Howard is stuck with the film’s most straightforward role. Because Hilly’s characterization is one-dimensional as the film’s evil figure, she doesn’t have much scope, but is able to make the character suitably detestable with her performance. Jessica Chastain’s Celia, along with her turn as Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, proved to me that she is going to be going places after this year. In a completely different role to the one she played in Malick’s film, she is equally terrific. It also demonstrated her range as an actress. Celia is the kind of naïve character that could have been easily overdone, but Chastain’s portrayal is able to generate a lot of sympathy for her. Some of the film’s best scenes involve interactions between Minny and Celia.
As far as the film’s subject matter goes, what I know about the Civil Rights movement and the racial divide during that era, I know from reading about them on the Internet. Therefore, I cannot validate the authenticity of the film’s depiction of these issues. Still, I can say that the film isn’t of the subtle variety. It is purposefully cinematic to drive home its point. Hilly is the epitome of evil and almost every line from her mouth drips with racial hatred. In contrast, Skeeter is the ‘white knight’ with no kinks in her armor, so to speak. Certain characters are shown to be more accepting of their black maids – like Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney) – but even they are forced to change their standing due to other pressures. To put it plainly, this film is all about black and white, metaphorically and literally.
Nevertheless, that is more of an observation than something that is to the film’s detriment. The Help is still a moving motion picture. Scenes such as the one where Aibileen talks about the loss of her son or the one where she half-runs to her apartment after the shooting of Medgar Evars are genuinely heartbreaking. The writing by Tate Taylor (also director) is great. It brings out the light-hearted relationships between the maids with some undoubtedly funny dialogues, while still having plenty of weight to be forceful during the heavier sequences (such as Aibileen’s final tirade). I also felt that one of the best relationships in the film was between Minny and Celia. The way this particular segment is closed offered me one of the moments of genuine catharsis I’ve had all year.
Due to the way it has been structured and the strength of its writing, **The Help **strikes perfect balance between comedy and drama. Too much of the former and it might’ve turned into a farce and the message, lost. Too much of the latter and it might’ve become a full-blown tearjerker. It is also driven by three great central characters and anchored by a host of ridiculously talented performers. That combination drives it to the upper echelon of films from this calendar year and makes it worth a viewing.