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'The Help' is a thoughtful alternative to fluffy summer flicks

August 15, 2011|By BOB GARVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • In this film publicity image released by Disney, from left, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are shown in a scene from "The Help."
AP Photo/Disney, Dale Robinette

It is halfway crazy to release a movie like “The Help” in the middle of summer.

It is not a film with many blockbuster characteristics. The story takes place in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s, an era devoid of much recognizable technology. There is almost nothing in the way of special effects. It is funny in parts, but it is not a “fun” movie. It covers serious, depressing, and sometimes shameful subject matter. It does not fit in with the eye candy released every week during the season, the kinds of movies that make over $50 million their first weekend.

And yet, it’s also a halfway genius move to release it in the summer because it is so refreshingly different from the blockbuster eye candy.

There are three main characters in the story and their lives intertwine. Skeeter (Emma Stone) is a white, well-to-do recent college graduate pursuing a career in journalism. Kind, wise Aibileen (Viola Davis) is a black maid working for unfit mother Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly). Outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) is another black maid working for villainous segregation advocate Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Skeeter notices that her “friends” Elizabeth and Hilly have a condescending attitude toward their “help” even though the maids give so much of themselves to their employers. She decides she wants to write a book on why people should respect these women, even though pro-integration literature is illegal in Jackson.

All three are faced with trials in their lives. Skeeter has trouble finding maids to come forward for interviews, putting the whole project in jeopardy. She also has to deal with her sick mother (Allison Janney) who wants to marry her off and is hiding something about the disappearance of the family’s own maid (Cicely Tyson).

Aibileen becomes a pariah among her fellow maids when news spreads that she is a part of Skeeter’s book. Minny is fired after using Hilly’s “whites only” bathroom and has to go work for dim-witted trophy wife Celia (Jessica Chastain).

This actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise since Celia apparently doesn’t know that she’s supposed to look down on Minny. But the job comes with unique challenges all the same.

A few logistical issues hold the movie back. The chronology of the plight of a fellow maid who wants to send her kids to college is out of order. It’s hard to keep Skeeter’s shallow friends and would-be lovers straight.

And there’s a believability issue involving a pie that Minny makes for Hilly after she’s been fired. Minny is furious with her former employer, but she makes her a pie as a supposed peace offering. Hilly eats the pie not knowing that Minny has tainted it with a disgusting ingredient. It is beyond a reasonable suspension of disbelief that Hilly would not immediately be able to pick up on the ingredient. She should be able to figure it out based on its smell alone.

“The Help” tells the story of three women who persevered in order to open the eyes of America. One discovered the importance of perseverance, for the other two, perseverance was a way of life.

The performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are first-rate, they have already begun generating deserved Oscar buzz. The film isn’t as heavy as it could have been, we never see any haunting examples of true hate crime. Perhaps portraying the film’s world as uncomfortable instead of downright evil makes the maids’ problems more relatable and more likely to instill sympathy.

If you’re ready for a touching movie that needs to be taken seriously amidst all of summer’s raunchy comedies and goofy blockbusters, see “The Help.”

Three stars out of five.

“The Help” is rated PG-13 for thematic material. Its running time is 137 minutes.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.
    

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