Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

It's hard not to be tad cynical when entering a film like The Help.  Based on a best-selling novel that mixes comedy, tragedy and social commentary all taking place at the birth of the civil rights movement-- the film, from it's abundant advertising is positing itself as a candy-colored crowd-pleaser, tear-jerking yarn, seemingly hellbent at manipulating every Steel Magnolias-fawning emotion out there, and maybe a few Oscar nominations in the process.  The kick and surprising effect of the film is, that while far from perfect, it nearly, almost always works in making the viewer forget about it, that the emotion elicited feels, more often than not, earned and not forced and crammed down our throats, that the heart-tugging character studies, again more often than not, feel lived-in and truthful, not just like make believe hokum, and that the talented group of actresses that embody The Help, are more often than not, engaging, believable, and mostly worth rooting for, makes this film a small miracle by Hollywood, paint-by-numbers message pictures.  There's an awful lot going on here, and an awful lot of movie at two hours and seventeen minutes, and for a film that relates the Upstairs, Downstairs moans and groans of well-to-do white women and their African American help in Jim Crow-era Jackson, Mississippi, it could have been a lot worse than the sprightly, eager to please version that novice filmmaker Tate Taylor offers.

The first character we meet in this sprawling weepie is Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid for the decidedly un-maternal young Southern belle Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly.)  She's got a long tradition on her shoulders...her mother was a maid, her grandmother was a house slave (one assumes, though it's never mentioned, the family tree grows much sadder afterwards), and Aibileen herself might express that while times may have started to slightly chance, her situation is not that much different from her ancestors.  She's on her seventeenth household, and raising her seventeenth white child...the child herself refers her as mom several times.  Aibileen's best friend is a spitfire named Minny (Octavia Spencer), herself beholden to another, altogether more hostile white family headed by the vindictive and slight Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard.)  Both Aibileen and Minny find their world changed when a rebellious and free-thinking recent college grad nicknamed Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns to Jackson with grand plans to become a writer.  Skeeter herself was raised by an African American maid that raised her, and was held beloved by her...she was mysteriously let go some time earlier.  Moved by advice to write about what strikes and passions her, and already felt astray from her societal friends (like Hilly), Skeeter decides to write a tell-all account from the helps point of view.

This comes reluctantly, as first mentioned by an urbane book editor (played by Mary Steenburgen, in a thankless but generous performance that adds to the big, sprawling, game ensemble of the film) and from the maids themselves, afraid of what dangers might loom by telling their less than glowing accounts of lifelong servitude.  Goaded by anger, and crazed bigots like Hilly, Aibileen and eventually Minny agree.  Minny's story is further broadened once she's ousted from the Holbrook residence (for not adhering to Hilly's initiative to make the help use a separate bathroom outside the main residence) and finds work from a societal outcast from a white-trash vixen named Celia (Jessica Chastain, of The Tree of Life.)  Skeeter, herself is ostracized from her circle of friends and even by her family...her mother (Allison Janney) is a cancer patient longing for nothing but for her grown up girl to settle down and get married.  All of these conflicts, and side stories and over-stuffed arcs explain the over-bloated running time, and a great many of them (including a brief romantic aside for Skeeter) become overkill, but The Help, for what it's worth is perhaps greater as a whole, than the sum of its parts.  For when it works, and it may all be in a sappy, made-for-television sort of way, it works thanks to the commitment of its ensemble.

The words themselves may be slightly trite and are hardly subtle, but the range of talent expressed, especially in the three leading characters has that special, uncanny feeling of coming across achingly truthful and heartbreaking.  Viola Davis is at the center, through and through, and presents Aibileen with such poise, dignity and humanity that it's like a bullet through the chest when her real pain is revealed.  She's far too skilled an actress (which her resume should confirm) to lay it on too thickly, but in her stern consternation and quiet gracefulness, it's apparent from the very beginning this is her film.  Octavia Spencer has the showier part of the sassy Minny, but she's revelatory in the sense that in lesser hands, Minny would have been a cartoon, a smart assed manny; she gets the biggest laughs but only because it's so hard not to be affected by her strife and her will-- there's a particularly pointed and somewhat cruel scene where she serves her adversary her comeuppance, and while coarse, she owns it the entire time.  Emma Stone, for her part, and possibly the trickier part of the film for she must pave the moral compass without ill-advised earnestness, is affecting because of her dynamic screen's only late in the film that we get any sense of her pain, but Stone, with her cinematic charm is heartbreaking when her motives become more clear and palpable-- she connects to Aibileen and Minny because women like them were so much more apart of her upbringing than her actual parents.  As for Howard and Chastain, one must concede that they both go for broke in interesting ways, just this side of caricatures, broad and brazen...Howard seems to be channeling Cruella De Vil and Chastain a Marilyn Monroe type...whether good or bad, neither can held for lack of drive.  The rest of the starry ensemble is backed by Sissy Spacek, Janney, and Cicely Tyson, and while incidental or not, are provided for with possible Oscar clips.  Of those three, Janney wins.

And while The Help lags, sometimes in strides, sometimes in simple beats.  And while the over-eager stitching is a bit too apparent, and the Disney-endorsed, sunny aesthetic of sadder days is a bit hard to go down a few times, the humanity and generousness of the fine women anchoring this film make everything ever so easily-digestible, and in a few times, out and out heart-wrenching.  And while the real movement outside of Jackson is mostly shoddily viewed from a few, brief television clips that feel strangely disconnected to the soapy weeper that's front and center, it's difficult for me at least, a person mostly immune to such intentional manipulation, to neglect the small but effective pleasures of The Help.  Aibileen may have only started telling her stories because a scrappy, well-intentioned white girl called upon her too, but her voice has such a striking soul and vitality that makes The Help a better movie than it really should be, and Davis, hopefully, as its driver will be the one the reap the dividends.  B

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