August 31, 2011

The Help Succeeds Despite Uneveness

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In a summer jam-packed with every superhero imaginable, courageous kids battling aliens, and an army of menacing apes, The Help is a welcome breath of fresh air. Unlike its cheesy and similarly premised predecessors, The Help does not overtly attempt to drive home an excessively “inspirational” message, which in years past has deterred films of its kind. On the contrary, The Help is upheld not by a forced uplifting message, but by the actors’ exceptional performances, which are inspired in their own right. While it’s not a typical Hollywood summer blockbuster, The Help is a thoroughly enjoyable and inoffensive popcorn movie that benefits from both its star power, its numerous bouts of comic relief, and, as expected, its powerful message of positivity and acceptance.

Contrary to the film’s extensive advertising, the film does not totally rely on ‘It Girl’ of the moment, Emma Stone, but on the immensely talented yet criminally underappreciated Viola Davis. The film initially focuses on Davis’ Aibileen Clark, the longtime maid for a ditsy housewife who spends more time worrying about her social activities than her small children, to whom Aibileen becomes a surrogate mother. Aibileen is disgusted by her client’s neglectful behavior, and is even more repulsed by the deplorable actions of her friend, town queen-bee Hilly Holbrook (played by a shamelessly devilish Bryce Dallas Howard). Aibileen and Hilly’s housekeeper Minny Jackson (played with endearing sassiness by character actor Octavia Spencer), encounter Skeeter (Stone, a natural) who is  a budding journalist and frenemy of Hilly. When Skeeter reveals her plan to interview housemaids for a revolutionary book that would expose the heinous behavior of their clients, Aibileen and Minny are apprehensive. But after a couple of particularly appalling instances of clientele neglect (including one followed by an arrestingly comedic act of revenge by Minny), the two friends agree to help Skeeter with her book and gather the support of dozens of other maids. When the book’s popularity skyrockets in the small Mississippi town, Skeeter inadvertently starts a movement by bringing the injustices to the attention of ordinary folk.

If the above description makes the story sound uneven, that’s because it is. The story’s lack of focus on any single plot element or character is the film’s greatest flaw. Because the film opens with a look into Aibileen’s double-life, the audience assumes that The Help is Aibileen’s story. However, the audience is subsequently thrust into Skeeter’s life — from her young fantasy of becoming a star journalist, to her job interview, and eventually to her experience writing the book that gives the film its name. In the meantime, we also focus on Aibileen’s and Minny’s sufferings in the households they serve. It’s almost as if the film’s writers were unable to choose a protagonist. If this was the case, the writers should have chosen to focus on Aibileen’s story, which is far more compelling than Skeeter’s thanks to Davis’ brilliant portrayal of Aibileen. In particular, Aibileen’s climactic confrontation with Hilly is so powerful and heartbreaking that even Howard appeared to have a hard time keeping it together.

While The Help easily could have taken the cheesy Lifetime movie route with its setting during the Civil Rights era, the film successfully steers clear of tackiness seen time and time again in similarly themed films. This is achieved by featuring housewives who befriend their maids rather than belittle them. Jessica Chastain, who made her break in this summer’s polarizing epic The Tree of Life, plays the perky yet lonely Celia Foote, who hires Minny after Hilly dumps her. Their unexpected bond is one of the most touching relationships in the film. Moreover, including a storyline involving a loving relationship between a housewife and her maid is something not always seen in films like The Help, and the change is certainly a welcome one. The Help’s freshness and stellar performances make it a must-see.

Original Author: Sydney Ramsden