2011, PG-13, 146 min. Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 12, 2011
A major complaint brought against Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller The Help was that a white woman didn't have any business writing a civil rights-era novel from the perspective of black maids. I haven't read the book, but as a general rule, I don't think we should be making any rules about who has the right to tell certain stories; for starters, if only women were allowed to make movies about women and only blacks were allowed to make movies about blacks, then we'd have a lot fewer movies being made about women and blacks, considering how disgustingly underrepresented both are in Hollywood. In any case, it's hard to imagine Tate Taylor's positively polite film adaptation drawing much controversy; it bears such little resemblance to real life it's hardly worth arguing over degrees of offensiveness in its anodyne interpretation of the civil rights struggle of 1963. As in the source novel, The Help alternates perspectives between Aibileen (Davis), a tough-as-nails maid who is mourning the early death of her only son while worrying about the mistreatment of the white child in her charge; saucy Minny (Spencer), who works for a society hellion named Hilly (Howard); and Skeeter (Stone), a white woman who bucks her Junior League background to write a book in secret with Minny and Aibileen about what it's like to be "the help." All three lead actresses are terrific – Davis very bodily evokes Aibileen, her shoulders hunched high with stress – and Chastain (The Tree of Life) has a sneaky-fun small turn as a new wife ostracized for her humble origins. It would be an exaggeration to say that The Help has only two settings for its white characters – saintlike vs. uncut evil – but its characterizations do often feel that unsubtle, and it has an overmodest debutante's aversion to any ugliness (Minny is a battered wife – a significant subplot – but Taylor never shows the man or the beatings). The Help may be more interested in the moral at the end of the story than the story itself, but what saves the film from its meticulous one-dimensionality is that nuanced, deeply moving cast. They make The Help's rose-colored hokum infinitely easier to swallow.