Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen (Viola Davis)
smiling in their Sunday best in The Help.
Though relatively lightweight and somewhat manipulative, The Help is nonetheless affecting. It's the acting that sets it apart from most films of its kind, and with no less than four excellent performances, it's easy to forgive a film its missteps. I thought some of the characters were frustratingly one-dimensional, but the performances are still outstanding. And I found myself moved, but it wasn't easy to get to that point. It's a bit of a mixed bag, I guess, but on the whole, I'd definitely say there's more to recommend here than there is to condemn.
The film takes place in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, though the movement hasn't quite made its way to Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter (Emma Stone) has just graduated from college and is looking to start a writing career with a bang. But it's moonlighting as a housekeeping columnist that pays the bills for Skeeter at first, so she enlists Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend's maid, to help her write the columns. It's in observing the way Aibileen and other housemaids are treated by their white owners that Skeeter comes up with an idea. She too grew up with a maid, and her family's maid raised Skeeter. And she doesn't understand how her friends, especially Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), can treat their surrogate mothers as second-class citizens. So she starts to write, but most of Jackson's help is afraid and unwilling to assist her.
Viola Davis broke out in Doubt a few years ago, and since then, she's been all over. She impressed me in a throwaway role in Trust earlier this year, but here, she's sensational, giving one of my favorite performances of the year by anyone. Aibileen isn't as boisterous as some of the film's other characters, but her poise and strength are extraordinarily admirable, and Davis conveys them with all the reluctance we might expect from someone in her position and with her background. She's proud, but not too proud as to act foolishly or dangerously. Her friend, Minnie (Octavia Spencer), however, is a different story.
Minnie steals most every scene she's in with sass and attitude. She's worked for Hilly and her family for years, until Hilly fires her for using the indoor guest bathroom. This drives her toward Celia (Jessica Chastain), a hopeless young housewife, who's been shunned by Hilly and the gang, but is naive enough not to realize it. Her relationship with Minnie is one of the film's high points. They're an odd fit, but they share one thing in common: a troubled relationship with Hilly. Contrary to what you might expect, it's Minnie who acts out toward Hilly (to hilarious results), while Celia attempts to win her over through kindness. Neither really succeeds, but they learn a lot about each other as a result.
The relationships between Skeeter and the maids is also interesting. She wants to help them out of their circumstances, but no one, including her, quite understands why. Many of the local maids think she might be using them to advance her career; others are afraid she's just setting them up for a big fall on a lark. Aibileen takes a chance on her, and through her leadership, others soon join them. It might not seem like the most courageous deed (just sharing your stories with another), but director Tate Taylor does a great job developing this world in a way that we understand the risks involved for these women.
My main objection was with the character of Hilly. At no point does Taylor (who also wrote the screenplay) attempt to make her three-dimensional. I don't think there's anything wrong with the way Bryce Dallas Howard plays the character; it's just that there's not all that much to her but cruelness and bigotry. She's not the only one-dimensional character. I think most of the women (excepting Aibileen and Celia) in the film—plus, all of the men—could use a little more depth. But thankfully, this doesn't stop the actresses from turning out great work, nor does it distract too much from the overall emotional trajectory of the film.
With a lot of money already in the coffer and plenty of critical and public support, we could be looking at an early Oscar contender. I don't think the faux-controversy surrounding the way the film deals with race will derail it. Only a really strong fall season will deny Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Hell, even a Best Picture nod shouldn't be out of the question at this point. I wouldn't put the film on that level, though I would say any acting recognition would be extremely well-deserved.