Kathyryn Stockett’s best selling book serves as inspiration for one of this year’s most emotional and enjoyable films. Moreover it serves as inspiration to people in general as it asks us to step above petty differences and try to see the world through the same set of eyes. The novel has already won tons of praise and based on the success of the advanced screening and more early buzz this film is bound to win twice as many hearts.
While this tale about the happenings in small town Jackson, Mississippi is vastly different from the light-hearted trailer it’s probably a good thing that it was, in part, misrepresented. In Jackson we find that one half of the town basically employs the other half as “help”. That’s a far cry from hiring a gardener or electrician for a job here and there; these maids literally raise their employer’s children and take care of the house but all the time and devotion is easily cast aside as the help can they get fired for using their employer’s bathroom. Such injustice is and was tolerated, which makes the way of life in the 50’s (even so far as to allow something like the existence of “The White Citizens Council”) sound like a fairy tale.
Those who haven’t read the book and are coming in for a delightful seemingly breezy period piece will likely be impressed and won over with this touching film. At times it’s a very harsh account of life in the South during the Civil Rights Movement and is far different than the glossy pictures on the television sets would have you believe if you didn’t grow up back then. To get things movie the humor is there from the get go but it’s just a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. For small town America there is such rampant hatred and bigotry that it kind of makes you angry especially when looking back on this setting through the lenses of history.
Sure the film is meant to lighten the blows of how harsh it must have been for “the help” while at the same time Stockett paint the villains in The Help particularly more dastardly. But really, with a character like Hilly Holbrook, you can bet Stockett’s characture of someone from that time isn’t that far off. For her, the only thing worse than being mean and angry is being ignorant; ignorant of the love of herself and all those around her. Yet while she’s a detestable human being she really doesn’t know any better as she and others like her have been pampered and spoiled all their lives. But it’s no excuse and thus gives us a Cruella De Vil styled heavy to root against.
The Help features pretty high caliber female talent which drive the bus but are nothing compared to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer who just shine. Davis is captivating and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Oscar nom for her this January. Still as a quasi ensemble piece, much can be said for the efforts of Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek who just steals every scene she’s in. Emma Stone is cute and endearing also it’s funny to see her square off against Howard (the fact they both played Gwen Stacy in the Spider-Man films not withstanding) but she can’t really hold a candle to the rest of the cast. In a way it’s justifiable because while she is one of the three main characters, like any interviewer, it’s really not about her.
Tate Taylor‘s adaptation is an enjoyable story with a positive message replete with plenty of comedy to break up the story to keep it from feeling too heavy (even if most are sit-com grade jokes). In addition, there are moments where Thomas Newman’s score chimes in with an uplifting tune but it’s never overplayed and as such allows the girls to find their voice and bring the true emotion and weight to the story.
That said there are two small knicks in what is otherwise a near perfect story. Much like how oysters are just a vehicle for crackers and ketchup (it’ll make more sense once you’ve seen the movie), the sparse and yet forced love angle for Skeeter (Emma Stone) didn’t serve much point other than to give her the pat on the back affirmation that what she was doing was right. And so, like those crackers, was just as unsatisfying and really could have been handled by another character. Also at a surprisingly swift run time of 137 minutes The Help builds to how the two maids, brave enough to help Skeeter in the first place, finally get participation from all the other maids. Yet when that happens we don’t hear many of their stories. Perhaps there’s more in the novel but it felt decidedly light when 30 maids show up to help and yet we hear from only three of them.
The Help is a heart-warming, confident film that teaches its story instead of preaching it. It’ll make you laugh, smile and cry probably more than another film this year as it’s a wonderful and emotional story with lots to love. But taking a step away from praising the film, from a different perspective The Help is a call to look at the world around you and reassess what you think is important in your daily lives. The question “how will I be remembered?” comes to mind as well as this one, “Is what I am doing going to benefit those around me or just myself?” Once in a while we need a film (or to give credit where it’s due, a book) like The Help. It reminds us to rise above the ignorance, shrug off life’s hardships to find compassion in the world and pick life, don’t let life pick you. Change certainly starts with a whisper as the poster above states but really, it starts with you. Abeline really said it best, “You is kind, you is smart and you is important“. OK, enough sounding like Maya Angelou, I’m off to read the book!!