Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help - Theatrical Review


Release Date: August 10, 2011

Sometimes we just need an inspirational story to lift our spirits. After a summer filled with action and adventure it is nice to sit down and watch a movie that only aspires to tell a story filled with real down to Earth characters along with a nice bit of humor to help it go down easier. And that is exactly what The Help does, it helps us sit back and relax while it spins a tale that isn't going to set the world on fire but just like a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer day it sure is refreshing.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 12 Downtown Disney
Time: 4:25 pm August 17, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hours 17 minutes
Studio: Dreamworks

Loves: Emma Stone, inspiring stories
Likes: Viola Davis
Neutral: Useless characters
Hates: Nothing this time
Fact: This movie is NOT based on a true story

Director Tate Taylor has made a quietly disturbing and often times invigorating film based off the novel by Kathryn Stockett. It is tackling a subject that is to this day still a very sensitive one and for good reason. When I talked about the trailer a couple months back I mentioned my concern with how it could possibly bring anything new to the table when there are already so many other films that have done what it was attempting. My concerns were unfounded though because this time in American history is something that must be looked at from every possible angle and something that should never be forgotten. But the true beauty of what The Help brings with it is that it isn't a large scale biopic on a historical figure. Even though it takes place during one of the bleakest moments in the history of our country it wisely never deviates from the more intimate look at a few individuals amongst many that were living through nightmarish conditions on a daily basis.

It is the 1960's and The Civil Rights movement is in full swing with the country at a turning point in history on multiple levels. Even though slavery has been abolished you would be hard pressed to find any such evidence of that in Jackson Mississippi where black maids can be fired for using a white woman's toilet or black men can be killed with little to no justice served. Which is where we meet two house maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her good friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) both of whom have been working in the business of serving rich white families their entire lives. Aibileen is acting as both house maid and nanny to Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) by taking care of her little girl while Minny is busy of taking care of Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Hilly's mother Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek). Both women have their hands full dealing with not only their everyday chores but also with the flat out racist attitudes and actions of their employers. Then enters Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) into the picture, friend of both Elizabeth and Hilly who is coming back home to Jackson from college to fulfill her dream of becoming a novelist. Little did she, Aibileen or Minny realize that the answer to all their prayers was each other.

Aibileen and Minny hunker down at the local grocery store.

Racism is still a tricky subject even in this day and age of so called enlightenment. I can't speak for everyone on this subject but from growing up and living in Southern California (which has been a melting pot for all different sorts of ethnicity's) my entire life I have been privy to both sides of the coin. That's not to say I have personally been effected by any sort of bigotry but I have witnessed it first hand even from people that claimed to be "tolerant" of other races. What I am getting at here is that there is still a subconscious bit of that old school hatred buried deep within many people whether they know it or not and most of the time it is something they picked up from being around other people who were raised that way themselves. The Help is targeted directly at a point in our country's history where the majority had that hatred in them and it wasn't hidden, it was worn like a badge of honor.

This isn't a hateful movie though, it deals with a hateful subject but it isn't heavy handed with the material. When we see how Hilly treats Minny (and just about anyone else for that matter) it is ugly. That ugly side of things is graciously coated in a veil of whimsy most of the time with only a few moments in the film where certain situations are treated with the seriousness they deserve. Hilly is the queen bitch of the movie, she has been created to give the audience a central figure to focus all their hatred unto and she handles the job quite admirably. If you can think of the worse thing possible for someone to say to or about another and do it to their face then Hilly will provide it. She is scapegoat for all our anger and our laughter and is the best example of how the film juggles its touchy subject.

Hilly is all for the separation of whites and blacks.

Yes, this is a pretty lighthearted movie and I think that was the right choice. I have seen plenty of movies that dealt head on with the subject of racism and hatred in the most realistic way possible but not everything must be that black and white (pardon the pun). To balance out Hilly's almost satanistic values which is used to showcase the national racism of that time there is of course the character of Skeeter whom is supposed to be our gateway persona and the one white person that can see the crimes against humanity happening all around her. She is still friends with Hilly and Elisabeth when she comes home but after receiving some horrible news from her mother regarding her own nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson) she decides to try and do something about changing the climate of Jackson Mississippi. Her idea is to chronicle the lives of every maid in Jackson and to turn it into a novel so that others who normally wouldn't give it a second thought about the plight of the local help could finally have it spelled out to them, quite literally, that things need to change.

That is where the heart of the film lies for me, with the stories of these women who have dedicated their lives to raising families that were not their own for generations. And while they all have stories to tell, it is Aibileen and to some extent Minny who we hear most of the horrible injustices they have dealt with over the course of their lives. When Aibileen finally decides to sit down with Skeeter and relate to her everything that she has to say it is sometimes comical but mostly heartbreaking. You would think that someone who is mistreated like she has been would be filled with hate towards those that abuse her but with Aibileen that isn't the case. As a matter of fact the one real criticism she has for her current employer is not so much that she is a racist but more like she is a dumb shit and a flat out bad mother (she some times leaves her toddler in dirty diapers over night) and Aibileen can't stand not being able to tell her to get her act together. She loves that little girl that she looks over every day and it pains her to see her not properly looked after when she isn't around.

Skeeter and Aibileen prepare to make themselves heard.

While Aibileen provides the more heartfelt sentiments that gives the film the weight it needs to suck us in it is without a doubt the inclusion of Minny that lets us exhale in between those moments of grief and hardships. She doesn't have it any easier than Aibileen but her personality and how she deals with the same problems both women face have are fairly dangerous overtone yet are often followed with hysterical results. Aibileen has seen it all and is just trying to live day by day and Minny has gone the opposite direction by targeting her resentment towards all the rich white women of Jackson in some pretty outlandish ways. Her character isn't played for laughs though and I appreciate the filmmakers choice to not make her overly broad and too much of a comic relief figure. She does get some of the biggest laughs found in the film though and is also blessed with one of the more pleasant story and character arcs in the film with the quasi friendship she forms with her newest employer, and outcast of the town, Celia (Jessica Chastain).

None of what happens in the film would be nearly as effective if it weren't for the cast assembled here. Now I did have my reservations towards having Emma Stone play the character of Skeeter mainly due to the southern accent and the supposed age of  the woman (Emma played a high school teenager just last year) which I put around her early 20's. But Emma Stone turns in a fine performance and proves she can do much more than simple teen comedies. Everyone else does what was expected of them, Howard goes for the gold with her portrayal as the enemy-of-the-people Hilly and knocks it out of the park (you will love to hate her), Spencer as Minny is in my eyes the only person that could have ever played that part. The sass she instills into Minny mixed with the frustration she must keep bottled up was just pitch perfect and never once felt false. The supporting roles such as Skeeters mother Charlotte (Alison Jenney) and Tyson, in only a couple scenes, made for a powerful presence when it mattered most.

The Help of Jackson is ready to tell their stories.

The real story here though is the phenomenal performance by Viola Davis. I don't like to call these things this early but I think she at least has a shot at an Oscar nomination for what she does here. This is her movie, there are other characters and actors that all do fine jobs in the film but she steals the show every time she is on screen. In a sort of  tiny flash forward the opening scene has her starting to confess to Skeeter her story and when she first looks towards us we instantly see a lifetimes worth of pain and agony in her eyes that no words could ever do justice to. Davis is mesmerizing in the role of a woman who has suffered an unfathomable amount of loss in a time when black people of every gender, religion and background were suffering losses on a daily basis. She is the soul of this film that keeps it afloat even during its more tried and true moments. While she is the anchor for the real drama going on it is the growth of all the characters and the bond they forge that will win most audiences over in the end.

Despite my glowing praise of the film thus far I did come away from it not entirely pleased with certain minor issues that popped up. In a movie already filled with multiple characters and their individual stories that are intertwined with one another the last thing we needed was some more characters thrown on top of the other ones. I am not so much talking about all the side characters, Skeeter's boss at the Jackson paper was entertaining and Sissy Spacek as Hilly's mother was hilarious, especially when she just loses it at one point and goes into a fit of unstoppable laughter. But I am talking more about characters like Skeeter's new boyfriend and the entire subplot of people trying to get her a husband. Skeeter already had to deal with her mother, her job at the paper, her novel (which includes having to interview all the different maids), her growing dislike for her old friends and the ordeal of having to find ways of conversing with Aibileen without being thrown in jail (she is not even allowed to drive Aibileen home). The last thing she needed was a romantic angle, her character was not only a strong woman who didn't need that entanglement in her life at that particular moment but by the time the movie is over that entire subplot is thrown out the window more or less.

Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny share a moment together.

Now this last gripe I have may sound a little hypocritical but I thought Hilly was played maybe a little too broad for the content in the film. I liked what Howard did with the role and it is always good to have a person to latch the hate train on to in movies like this but I am not sure it needed to be so over the top villainous like it was. Once again though let me state that I liked the character but I just don't think it needed to be played that way. That being said though, the entire story arc between Hilly, Minny and a homemade pie is just too priceless to have lost at the cost of making her character more down to Earth and in that light I am not bothered by that choice too much I suppose. Lastly I would like to point out that the movie did feel a bit longer than it needed to be as well with the middle section just before Aibileen starts talking to Skeeter moving a little slow at parts.

Those are all minor gripes though for a movie that delivers one of the better feel good movies that has come out this year. If nothing else The Help will help as a launching pad for a lot of careers for people involved with its production down the road with this being a gateway for Emma Stone into more adult oriented roles, Viola Davis as a leading lady and director Tate Taylor as a new talent to be on the look out for whenever his next feature comes out. For as much as I enjoyed The Help is a harmless, sweet, tragic, uplifting and often inspiring look back at a period of American history that shall not and never should be forgotten. So if you are in the market for a movie that will have you leaving that theater feeling overly optimistic about life then I suggest you...




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