Monday, April 2, 2012

The Help

*** Included in Brian's Best and Worst of 2011 ***
Right before the Oscars, I saw all nine nominations for Best Picture in the theater.  In the span of two days.  Feeling exhausted after sitting the the dark all day is definitely a first world complaint, but it got a bit difficult at times, and ever since, I've had trouble sitting down and gathering my thoughts about those movies.  The nice thing about watching all nine films was that I watched movies that I would have otherwise avoided.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was definitely not on my list of movies to watch, nor was The Help.  But I did see them, even if tearjerkers are not my favorite genre, and each film taught me a valuable lesson.
The lesson: white women are evil

In the early 1960s, Skeeter (Emma Stone) is finally home after four years earning her degree at the University of Mississippi.  Skeeter is different from all the other girls she grew up with; aside from settling for "Skeeter" as a nickname, she also went to school to prepare herself for a job, not to hunt for a husband.  When she came home, she was expecting to be congratulated by the woman who raised her.  No, not her mother (Allison Janney), silly --- Constantine (Cicely Tyson), Skeeter's family's black maid. 
Above: Young Skeeter.  Not Pictured: Constantine's striped socks
Mom tells Skeeter that Constantine quit and moved to Chicago to live with her family, but doing something that would be plausible in any other story sounds suspicious to Skeeter --- at the very least, Constantine would have written her a letter, right?  Even setting aside that unsettling development, post-graduate life isn't exactly what Skeeter had in mind.  Her friends and family expect her to get married and have kids immediately, but she wants a career.  And the only job she could find in her field (writing) is as an advice columnist specializing in cleaning around the house.  Too bad she doesn't know the first thing about housecleaning.  If only Constantine was around, she would certainly help Skeeter by essentially doing her work for her!
"Maybe you can write about having Mommy dress you as an adult?"
But wait just a minute...there are other black maids in Skeeter's town --- perhaps one or more of them could give her helpful advice for her column?  Enter Aibileen (Viola Davis), maid to one of Skeeter's friends.  Aibileen agrees (after being allowed by her employers, of course) to advise Skeeter.  Spending time with Aibileen makes Skeeter more aware of her town's casual racism, and this gives her an idea --- Aibileen should tell her side of things, so people could learn about life from the perspective of "the help."  This had never been done before, so it was novel enough to get Skeeter's foot in the door at a book publishing house --- now, all she needed was a variety of hard-hitting and dramatic stories from dozens of "helpers."  That should be easy enough.  After all, it's not like this story takes place right around 1962 Mississippi, where any African American adult could lose their livelihood or their life just for standing up for their legal rights, right?  Oh, wait...crap.  Writing a book about the dirt behind the closed doors of her hometown might not be the safest idea anyone ever had for a book.
Great.  Now they need a lookout to go shopping.  Thanks, Skeeter.

In any conversation about The Help, the first thing that should pop up is the performances.  Viola Davis was excellent as the film's main character, even if it isn't necessarily the lead character.  Davis carries this film's emotional content, whether it be grief, heartbreak, a feeling of injustice, or pride.  Octavia Spencer is also very, very good as the sassiest maid in town.  I realize that the sassy black woman is not a rarity in film, but it's still a pleasure to see the role done right.  Emma Stone's Skeeter acts as the audience's point of view character, and I thought Stone did a fine job with what she had to work with.  I have my reservations about her character, but I'll touch on that in a bit.  Bryce Dallas Howard was suitably evil as the biggest racist and snob among Skeeter's friends; this wasn't a deep role, but Howard made sure that the character had absolutely no redeeming qualities.  Jessica Chastain was significantly better, balancing a ditzy character's foibles with some solid dramatic points.  I'm a little curious as to how her character's appearance was explained to her, but I guess it underlined her as a social outsider.
"Love that Joker!"
The rest of the cast falls in somewhere between bit parts and extremely brief supporting roles.  It was nice to see Sissy Spacek having fun with  her role; her reactions definitely improved a few scenes.  Allison Janney was solid, but I would have liked to see her do more.  For theoretically being such a pivotal character for Skeeter, Cicely Tyson didn't have much screen time, although she was still pretty good when she was given the chance.  Other actors, like Ahna O'Reilly, Chris Lowell, Aunjanue Ellis, and Mike Vogel showed up and did whatever the script required of them, although some of their characters seemed to make choices that were awfully convenient to the plot.

That convenience is part of what frustrates me about The Help.  While the film goes out of its way to bring up some very serious issues --- racism, domestic abuse, civil rights, etc. --- most of those issues are glossed over.  When the other maids come forward and contribute to Skeeter's book, some of them have very sad tales, but they are only minor characters in this story, and their sole purpose is to say something tragic and then fade out of the story.  The otherwise indomitable Minny is afraid of her husband's rage, and we see her cowering from his blows, but that entire subplot is resolved off-camera.  Other moments, like Chris Lowell's abrupt departure from the film, come out of left field, indicating that their characters are merely props for the main characters to interact with.
Above: three main characters, two props, and a bridge table

I hesitate to blame director Tate Taylor for these deficiencies, though.  This is a film with an enormous cast, most of whom are limited to a few lines and a single costume.  Taylor did a great job with his primary cast, given their roles.  He was able to tell the story simply, without getting sidetracked in unnecessary subplots, and he made sure to hit every possible emotional moment on the head.  The Help is going to try to make you cry, and it will probably succeed.  At the very least, it should disgust you with its (presumably) accurate depiction of racism in the American South in the sadly not distant past.  The camera work is nothing special, but the voice-over and editing are handled nicely.  Given the source of the story, Taylor handled this film about as well as anyone I can imagine, given the limitations of the story.

Don't be confused, though.  The Help is not a very deep or thought-provoking film.  It goes for an emotional response and gets it, but the message probably won't stick with you for long.  Part of this is due to the simplicity of the characters.  This is a film with good people (not racist or sexist) and bad people (racist bullies), with very little grey area; yes, there are two characters who fire their maids because a bossy racist pressures them to, but they're more cowards than racists or evil.  There are working stiffs (the maids and Skeeter) and there are privileged housewives (every other female character).  There are cowards and there are brave folk.
"Bless you, Skeeter, for using my talent to find you a job."

Even the simplicity doesn't explain quite why I felt manipulated by The Help.  This should be an empowering film because the protagonists improved their lot in life and fought a grave injustice.  Instead, I was kind of annoyed by Skeeter.  I know I am supposed to root for her because she's spunky, educated, and wants to fight racism, but she kind of sucks.  First of all, the film depicts her situation as being risk-free; I realize that racists could harm her, but she is never implied to be in danger.  Aibileen and Missy are clearly afraid, but Skeeter never appears worse than socially awkward.  Second, Skeeter shouldn't even be the main character.  The most interesting character in the film is Aibileen --- she is brave, smart, and Skeeter is essentially just transcribing her story --- but we have to sit through Skeeter's tale?  I would much rather have the film focus on Aibileen than deal with the Skeeter's epic romance that boils down to a guy saying "You're different from the other girls."  Maybe Skeeter would have been more palatable as the main character if the fate of Constantine --- which is treated like a mystery throughout the film --- wasn't incredibly obvious from the start and the resolution seemed to be delayed only by the main character making a conscious choice not to pursue the matter until the end of the film. 

The Help left me surprisingly cold.  It has a happy ending, where everyone you care about is moving onward and upward, and yet it just feels like Skeeter used some poor black women to help her get the hell out of podunk Mississippi, while Aibileen apparently plans to put "a white woman anonymously included my stories in an anthology" on her next job application.  This movie simplifies complex matters, almost to an insulting degree.  While I certainly don't advocate racism, I'm pretty sure that it comes in varying degrees; Bryce Dallas Howard was so unsympathetic that she could have passed for a Bond villain.  Thank goodness the racists weren't complex characters, otherwise the audience might have to think about an unsettling issue instead of just being relieved that things aren't as obviously racist today.
...although there is still a risk of tampered food.  Tip your waiters!

The Help is worth seeing for the acting alone.  It's an emotional film, but it is an uplifting one as well, provided you don't put a whole lot of hard thought into it.  Large chunks are predictable, but every so often something or somebody will surprise you. Is this a movie that I liked?  Not especially, but there were enough strong performances to make this worthwhile, at least once.


  1. Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days. The cast is also very impressive and I still think that Viola should have got that damn Oscar, but then again, she'll definitely have her time to shine again. I know it. Good review Brian.

  2. She did not get the Oscar? I thought that she did. Oh well, it is a shitty, contrived award anyhow. Regardless, I think you completely missed the point in your review and this movie in general: RACISM = BAD!!!

  3. For the record, Viola Davis didn't get an Oscar or a Golden Globe; Octavia Spencer got both.

    As for racism being bad...I think I may have overlooked that plot point. Was that part of a postscript in the credits?