When about a month ago this reviewer saw an ad for “The Help” appear in the trailers preceding a movie, my natural reaction was one of dismay. It looked too shiny, too picturesque – too pretty for a story about a group of black maids who help a young white woman publish accounts of their abuse in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Even since its release, critics have stated that it is too soft in depicting the racial conflict of this era. However, when it came time to actually see it, I was left with an attitude that was the polar opposite of what I’d expected.
“The Help” – based upon the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett – is one of the best, most solid commercial movies I’ve seen this year. It is a wonderfully clear-minded film, not clouded up by the fast-paced styles of many contemporary filmmakers, and takes on a nature of timelessness because of it. With fine, nuanced direction and a simplistically eloquent script by Tate Taylor, this movie doesn’t try to do anything fancy in being symbolic or edgy or unnecessarily brutal in what it depicts – it has the grace and the good sense to merely allude to the horrors of what is going on in the civil rights movement, while showing head-on the sinister hell of what it must have been like to be a working black maid in said environment.
But what stands out the most about this movie are its five leading actresses – Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain. Each woman delivers an absolutely indelible performance that – paired with the script – draws out so many moments of quiet agony and humanity. Stone is solid, even, and strong-willed as the ambitious reporter Skeeter; Spencer is excellent support as the sassy and free-spoken Minnie; Howard is expertly despicable as the witch of a friend; and Chastain is marvelous as a Marilyn-esc but beautifully innocent Celia. And Viola Davis is a sight to behold – her awkward but profoundly courageous Aibileen is the stuff of movie hero legend, and Ms. Davis fully deserves an Oscar nomination for her efforts.
“The Help” is a highlight in the midst of many good and not-so-good summer movies – it is a rare experience for its power, its honesty, and its unabashedly classical style. Few movies nowadays posses the same assured strength that this one does, and it’s startling to remember at times that what you are watching is not based on a true story.