by Tim Ross
From the moment of its publication, Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” – which has received criticism for being a first-person perspective story about black maids set in 1960s Missisippi written by a white woman – was destined to become a film.
Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone, the big screen version of “The Help” tells this stirring tale with pitch-perfect performances by the cast and subtle direction and a deft screenplay from Tate Taylor. Virtually every aspect of this film, from the cinematography to the production design and fantastic costumes, is consistent and essential.
At the heart of the story are two maids Aibileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer), best friends and two of many maids working for Junior League women in Jackson, Miss. They’re kind, funny, strong, captivating women and the actresses play them with fine detail.
From the opening narration, we are transported to Jackson during the rise of the civil rights movement. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) is a recent college graduate returning home to start her career as a writer (rather than marry and start popping out babies like all of her Junior League friends) and quickly gets a job at a local newspaper.
Skeeter tries to fit in with the debutantes but feels like a fish out of water, growing increasingly uncomfortable with their racist comments and obsession with social status. The ringleader of these shallow women, Hilly, is played in a brilliant performance by Bryce Dallas Howard.
Once Skeeter learns the maid who raised her is gone, she realizes how important she was to her life and starts seeing “the help” with new eyes. She decides their story needs to be told from their point of view, and the maids respond with delicious storytelling. But “The Help” is more layered than just that – it’s also a story about the white women who employ them.
“The Help” is clearly a labor of love by all involved. The only fault I could find with this movie was my frustration that it wasn’t a true story. The characters are finely drawn, complex and layered. The story flows along like the Mississippi River – slow and deep in spots, shallow and swifter in others. It was easy to get lost in the story and forget the acting, direction and novelty of the big screen. And in good filmmaking that’s the goal. But more than that, it’s an impactful film and a timeless story about standing up for what’s right and for the power of the pen.
Grade: 4/4 stars