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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Help

Ultimately, the outstanding performances by Emma Stone and Viola Davis are what make the film worth watching.

Although it is nearing its end, the money making machine that we call the summer movie season proves that it hasn’t yet laid down all its cards. It’s been a good one, I might say, although it hasn’t differed from what is expected. We have had several superhero movies (both good and bad,) a supply of romantic comedies that could suffice until the end of next year, and that one really long and noisy action film that no one really asked for (I am not naming any names, *ahem ahem Michael Bay*.) Let’s not forget the couple of not-so-bad sci-fi’s, the downright awful sci-fi’s, the miserable so-bad-that-it-makes-you-gag children’s films, and that one fantasy film that turned out to be better than perhaps anyone expected – oh I might as well just say it, that one Harry Potter movie, that in this case will unfortunately be the last one that we will get.
But it isn’t until now that the season has unleashed that one movie that is infamous for either being cringe inducing or surprisingly worthwhile – the inspirational drama for the mainstream audience. This is a genre that I am not ashamed to be a guilty pleasure of mine, although it is no secret that there are a notable few that I despise. Perhaps this is precisely one of the reasons that I am always so tempted to see this genre- the fact that it can waver for tear-shedding to unintentional-laugh producing entices me to judge this myself.
Fortunately, The Help turned out to fall into the better category of the two.
Based on the book by Kathryn Stockett, The Help follows the story of Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, a hopeful journalist living in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s – a time when the prosperous depended on the less fortunate, the rich on the poor, the wealthy on the help. What Sweeter sees that nobody else sees (or perhaps that nobody else has the nerve to admit they see) is that the white, upper class of society treats their maids in a way that in no way recompenses the services they offer. The film is also told in the point of view of Aibileen, played by Viola Davis, an African-American maid who has spent her life as part of the help, and takes pride in her work – particularly when it comes to raising the children of those she works for.

Skeeter is unlike most of her friends and community in many different aspects. When they say marriage, she says career; when they say silence, she says speak. Perhaps most importantly, Skeeter doesn’t share the racist attitude of many of her friends. When a bill is proposed to mandate families to built separate bathrooms for their black maids, Skeeter begins to write a book that may change everything – a book from the point of view of the help.
It’s difficult to argue with the fact that The Help, much like many of the films in its genre, sugarcoats many of its racial and social issues. This may not be a big issue for its target audience, but to many it will. But as evident as it is that the movie isn’t a true portrayal of the issue it argues, it has one thing going for it; it isn’t as “feel good” of a movie as many others tend to be. The film doesn’t try to win the audience over by creating an always joyful mood that never ceases. There are numerous scenes in the film where you genuinely feel angry, devastated, and understanding – not the typical “everything is gonna be alright” mood.
Along with its sugarcoated message comes the whole bundle of the feel-good movie genre. With the exception of the two leads, every character in the movie is either a stereotype or a static character that remains the same from start to finish, although some suffer from alleged events that may or may not have changed their point of view or attitude on this and that… but not really. Thankfully, the supporting cast is pitch perfect, all the way from a charming Jessica Chastain to a hilarious Allison Janney.
One of the biggest bothers and-then-again pleasures of the film is its villain Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, in what I dare to say is her most satisfying role to date. She is wonderfully despicable as the Skeeter’s bigoted friend who tries to pass a bill to force families into building separate bathrooms for their maids. But as much as you can try to not mind this character, and as close as Bryce Dallas Howard takes you to getting there, it is undeniable that the character is flat. It is as if though the screenwriters stamped two labels and two labels only on the characters forehead: racist and sociable. This, unfortunately, is something that can be said for basically every supporting character.
Ultimately, the outstanding performances by Emma Stone and Viola Davis are what make the film worth watching. They are heartfelt and heartbreaking, believable and irresistible. I think it’s what we all expected from a mainstream feel-good drama – perhaps even a bit better.